How ubiquitous was reincarnation belief in the Ancient World?

and how consistent was it (in terms of it’s workings or “metaphysics”)?

On a slight tangent - as far as prehistory goes, and as such can only be speculative, the natural observation of the cycle of the sun might have inspired some kind of cyclical/reincarnation thought. Every day, it sets one side of the world… totally disappears… and then reappears on the opposite side! It dies and is reborn (of course, it could also be interpreted as simply hiding). This natural observation could be made with the naked eye; and requires no record-keeping as later astrological observation would. But those later astral observations would reveal that the wandering stars (planets) also follow a cyclical pattern.

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Namo Buddhaya!

I found this

Most respondents around the world (57%) think that there is a life after death. One in four (23%) do not believe that anything happens when we die. 15% cannot say

I assume annihilationism might have been a measure less prominent in the ancient world, if we talk about 1000-3000 years ago but it’s not easy to change these things.

It takes a long time. When humans live only 10 years then there would be least people believing.

I think humans are generally in decline now and so the wrong views are more widely held, as the lifespans decrease, there is more disease & degeneracy.

As to it’s philosophy & logic, it is same as it ever was, just varies in how well people can explain it.

While belief in reincarnation was indeed widespread, Thomas McEvilley introduced a useful distinction. He defined a “reincarnation complex” consisting of three primary axioms:

  • reincarnation is universal and unending
  • it is driven by kamma, i.e. moral choices
  • the goal is freedom from reincarnation

This complex is shared by Buddhism, Jainism, and Brahmanism (at least in some forms). Of course the details are different, but these ideas are shared. And he also identified a number of Greek philosophers who shared these ideas as well. And he argued that this complex of ideas is unknown outside of the Greek and Indian spheres. Whether this is due to parallel developments, or, as McEvilley argues, historical influence, is the question.


Is the idea of an endless samsara also part of Western Ancient world?

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See also

Obeyesekere, Gananath . (2002) Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.

As far as the workings of karma and rebirth are concerned, old-world Buddhists never reached a consensus on this. Although most of the different ideas died out over time, modern Buddhist still manage to disagree on mechanism.

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As I understand it, this aspect of reincarnation is not universal: but specific to the śrāmaṇa religions of India. For example, Yama is a folk hero in the Vedas because he discovered the way to the pitṛ loka, which is seen as a good thing. As I understand it, those Australian aboriginals who believe in rebirth do not seek to escape from it either.

There’s still some question in my mind about exactly when rebirth came to seen as something to be escaped from in India. The first mention of the possibility of escape seems to be found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. But even there it doesn’t explain why escape is a good thing.

Interesting. I have seen people trying to convince themselves and others that wanting to cease without anything remaining is what they really wish…and is a very pure wish of the heart…that relies on deep understanding of life and Dhamma…


A dispassionate heart does not long to cease without anything remaining. It also does not want to stay in samsara. The dispassionate heart, and we all know this heart, is uninclined towards such goals.
It only wants to be seen. That is the Truth.

This drive to cease, this drive to continue to exist, this drive for sensual pleasure, never comes straight from the heart. And that is also why we endless must feed this drive with ideas, views, conceivings, discussion…because it is really not aauthentic wish.

People will not accept this from me, a fool, but it is like this.

It depends what you mean by this.

The belief that reincarnation in general has been going on forever but with each individual soul having a finite past, and with new souls coming into existence at each fresh re-creation of the cosmos, has been held in the West, but not widely so. Something of this sort was certainly the view of Empedocles and possibly (though less certainly) of Pythagoras.

On the other hand, the belief that each individual soul or person or mental continuum has been undergoing reincarnation since an undefined past is uniquely Indian, as far as I know.


Unless we accept the view that the ancient British Celts were Buddhists, having been converted by missionaries sent to the British Isles by Emperor Ashoka.

This theory was proposed by the Scottish hyper-diffusionist Donald Alexander Mackenzie in his 1928 book, Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain. If Mackenzie is right, then we can reasonably assume that the British Celts would have held the view that you enquire about. That would of course be quite a big “If”.

Buddhist diffusionism

Mackenzie was a diffusionist. He believed specifically that Buddhists colonised the globe in ancient antiquity and were responsible for spreading the swastika. In his Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain (1928) he developed the theory that Buddhists were in Britain and Scandinavia long before the spread of Christianity. His main evidence can be summarised as follows:

• The Gundestrup bowl “on which the Celtic god, Cernunnos, is postured like a typical Buddha”.
• Gaulish coins with seated figures like Buddha.
• The testimony of Asoka, who launched Buddhist activities into Europe.
• Origen’s statement of Buddhist doctrines in ancient Britain.

The work received a mixed reception. Professor of Philosophy Vergilius Ferm reviewed the work positively, but other scholars criticised it for its lack of evidence.



My feeling is that the Buddha of the EBT does not categorically state…‘there was no first moment for a lifestream or the mental continuum’. It looks like thet text leave some room.

Personally i still tend to the idea of a first moment, not perse as creation by God, but more like there is also a first moment for a wave to arise in water. I feel the most for the idea that the lifestream has never arisen in the past and exist until now, but any moment arises as a wave, as agitation, as stimulation, as seemingly movement, as arousal of the mind. But a wave does not really move. There is not really a stream. There is only energy added to water or energy added to mind that feeds the impression of a stream.

That there is not really a stream, i believe, aligns with experience. There can be arising and ceasing discerned but this does not mean that mind had a stream-like character. People who assume it has, i feel, do not rely on experience and direct knowledge but on some theory of mind.

I would not be surprised that the idea of a lifestream that has existed for ever is the perspective of delusion and is Buddha way to connect up with conventional truth. It is how mind is experienced and understood and described trough the eyes of lobha, dosa and moha?

Absolutely, if you aren’t strict about “endless”. The Greek theories of reincarnation were incredibly diverse, probably more than Indian, and were delicately integrated with their own philosophy.

There are examples here Reincarnation: An Overview | Psi Encyclopedia which includes references and also other cultures.

Pherecydes of Syros was the first Greek to write about reincarnation, in the 500s BCE, but Greek reincarnation beliefs are more closely related to Pythagoras. Unfortunately, Pythagoras favoured oral instruction and left no writings of his own (those attributed to him are now known to be forgeries). In 440 BCE, Herodotus alleged that Greek reincarnation beliefs had been acquired from Egypt. These teachings affirmed, Herodotus said, that ‘when the body dies, the soul enters into another creature which chances then to be coming to the birth, and when it has gone the round of all the creatures of land and sea and of the air, it enters again into a human body as it comes to the birth; and that it makes this round in a period of three thousand years’. It is not certain that these were Pythagoras’ views, though, and modern scholars doubt that they originated in Egypt. It is not clear that the Egyptians believed in reincarnation; it seems more likely that the elite, at least, subscribed to some form of resurrection instead of reincarnation.

Other Greeks who embraced reincarnation include the poet Pindar (c. 518-c. 438 BCE) and the philosophers Empedocles (c. 492- c. 432 BCE) and Plato (427/428-348/347 BCE). Plato’s ideas are presented in his dialogues, explored through the words of his characters, and are not entirely consistent across his oeuvre. Plato drew on his predecessors but added some thoughts of his own. He likened the soul to a pair of winged horses hitched to a chariot. Some souls lost their wings and became embodied in creatures on Earth. These wingless souls were freed from the body at death to be judged by the gods and might be sent to the underworld to do penance for one thousand years before resuming corporeal life. Most souls required ten such cycles (ten thousand years) before they could regain their wings and return to the gods. Souls on their way to reincarnation were allowed to choose their new bodies, either human or nonhuman animal, but did so on the basis of their temperaments and characters. Before resuming fleshy existence, they were made to drink from the River of Forgetfulness (Lethe) to wipe clean their memories of their previous lives. The notion that the gods judged souls after death and that rebirth occurred after penance had been paid made karma superfluous as an ethical theory for the Greeks.

The problem with endlessness would be their (P.I.E.-like) creation myths implying an absolute beginning, but I believe it’s still quite relevant as even Hinduism has the same creation myth, but they just go back into previous kalpas.

This only glosses over how complicated their theories were. I have also seen from Aristotle that, in order to justify the existence of perception, that we learn what literally all objects are in the previous life, and the reason people disagree over certain perceptions is that some have a less purified soul. Studying philosophy would make their soul more purified, and criminals, slaves, and less virtuous people would have an “impure soul”. The Aristotle / Plato view of pure souls still remains in the west modern day, connected with their lengthy theories of justice and “perfection of man”. This especially inspired medieval Christian theologians and Catholicism (you even see the remnant of ancient monasticism in Catholic priest life).

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The belief certainly wasn’t completely ubiquitous in ancient India, since even in the suttas there are materialists who deny rebirth. The materialists are also argued with in quite some detail in the Hindu and Jain texts, so appear to have been quite prominent at the time. Search the internet for “Ancient Indian materialism” and you’ll find several scholarly books talking about this.

Also of interest is that most scholars agree the Vedas do not contain the idea of rebirth. It only appears in the Upanishads, which implies that the belief may have been adopted from the native Indians.

I asked a similar question here:


Sure, MacEvilley’s point was not that this was believed by all Indians, but by some, and that those beliefs are not found anywhere else, except among certain Greek philosophers. I don’t really have an opinion on the Greek side of things, and it certainly seems early to have this kind of extensive contact.

(One of the weaknesses of McEvilley’s work is that he is much more familiar with the Greek sources than the Buddhist. So he would reference an idea like the four elements from the Visuddhimagga, apparently not aware that it is found in the canonical texts.)

Oh my god!

And not just Britain – those doughty Ashokan missionaries even made it to Oceania and the Americas.

:ocean: :sailboat:

I was sufficiently intrigued by Mackenzie’s quote from Origen’s Commentary to Ezekiel to chase it up. It goes:

“The island (Britain) has long been predisposed to it (Christianity) through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead.”

It seemed almost too good to be true. Which according to amateur patristics scholar Roger Pearse is exactly what it is.

Origen did write a commentary to Ezekiel, but it doesn’t exist any more.

So I guess there’ll be no call for any supplementary verses to Blake’s Jerusalem.

Did Buddha’s wisdom cross the briny foam?
And find within our isles a fleeting home?
Did Boudicca with warrior’s eyes so keen,
Greet peaceful monks on Verulamium forest green?
And did they speak of life’s impermanent flow,
Of suff’ring’s cause, and how to let it go?

Bring me my bowl of hardened clay,
Bring me my patchwork monk attire;
Bring me my parissāvaṇa, yea!
That I may it dip it in the Wyre!

Etc., etc.