Reincarnation in the Upanisads

Cosmicization and tripartite doctrine

The version of the doctrine which entered India included the basic idea of rebirth in a new life-form, with no ethical dimension, as well as an already developed deterministic version (showing evidence of a Mesopotamian influence, but perhaps derived ultimately from Egypt), found among Gosala’s Ajivikas, where the round of 8,400,000 incarnations is seen as a process of purification, though no ethical practice can speed up the process of release. 

Though ancient and popular, the Ajivikas’ understanding of the process remained outside the Brahminical mainstream religion as laid out in the Vedas. As McEvilley put it: “The Rg Veda, like Homer, does not teach reincarnation … The burning of the body transports it to the next world, where the soul, flying temporarily out of the flesh, has to make efforts to rejoin it. Some of the dead go to hell; what happens to them we are not told. Others go to heaven, which is located on the moon, and there drink the water of life and become immortal in a hedonistic paradise of flute girls and wishing cows.”  

Hindu fire ritual – offerings are thrown into a consecrated fire

The religion the Vedic Aryans had brought with them on their way from the Caucasus region to northern India, was a worldly religion, offering sacrifices and prayers to gain support from the gods. It was an “unethicized religion,” further away from any notion of purification than the sramanic Ajivikas were in that period. 

The 10th book of the Rg Veda

First evidence for new ideas is found in the Rg Veda X, where a Near Eastern input can be detected. So we have here a new influx of concepts from Mesopotamia and Egypt, taking place around 1200 BC, whereas the Near Eastern influence on the Indus valley culture went back to before 1700 BC (date when the culture collapsed).  

The 10th book of the Rg Veda introduces the Near Eastern concept of a correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm, which, McEvilley explains, took two forms: “the universe is homologized to the body parts of a Cosmic Person, as it had been in recent Mesopotamian mythology,” and the application of “the theme of cosmicization to the dead soul as the sun receives his eye, the wind its breath” which “is strongly reminiscent of Egyptian afterlife motif.” Here is the first step taken towards the Upanisadic view whereby, in the words of Gombrich, “The microcosm (man) mirrors the macrocosm (the universe). Both have an essence, a true nature, a ‘self’ (atman), which is the same for both. So at the cosmic level brahman and atman are to be understood as synonyms.” As the individuated self and the Cosmic Self share the same essential nature, ‘knowledge of the atman’ means a sense of realization that one’s individuated self (atman) is a part of a Cosmic Self (brahman).” Knowledge, in this case, is not discursive knowledge, but the sort of intuitive insight one obtains through coalescing with what is known, here, realising that one is already brahman. This real-isation – in the double sense of knowing it with the mind and appropriating it in one’s life – is what is meant by the “cosmicization” of the soul. This is indeed, release from identification with the seemingly separate ego-centred self trapped in the body, and attainment of the divine standpoint of the Cosmic Self.  

The 10th book of the Rg Veda only contains the seed of the new version of the doctrine. Akkadian religious terms, such as the name of the goddess Tiamat, are found in the Atharva Veda at about the same date, confirming a Mesopotamian connection. 

The process of ethicisation leading to the fully-developed tripartite doctrine started around 800 BC. It proceeded in stages, with inputs from the sramanic schools. As Pande puts it, Vedic religion had to evolve “from the pre-eminence of gods and the happy co-operation of gods and men through sacrifice to a veritable “Götterdämmerung” and the jettisoning of Rite in favour of Right and Gnosis. Vedic religion advanced from pursuing the world to transcending it, from propitiating gods to seeking the Self.” A “creed of wordliness” (pravrtti-dharma) was to be reworked into a creed of renunciation (nivrtti-dharma).

Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka

The fully developed tripartite doctrine was articulated by Yajnavalkya in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, and Uddalaka in the Chandogya Upanisad, both composed around 700 BC, that is, only a century or two before the time of Mahavira and the Buddha. The teachings of Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka are the very teachings the Buddha was responding to when working out his doctrines of anatman and co-dependent origination, as an alternative to the assertion that atman, the individuated self, shared the essentialist characterisation of the Cosmic Self. 

Sage Yajnavalkya at the court of King Janaka

McEvilley describes Yajvalkya as “an engaging figure” looming large in the history of Indian thought.” “He is recorded to have been a ksatriya … who introduced doctrines from outside the Brahmin community.” Familiar with the cosmicization concept introduced in Rg Veda X, as well as the indigenous basic notion of rebirth in animal forms,” Yajnavalkya is credited with the earliest formulation of the karma doctrine in the Upanisads. “After one dies,” he says, “his knowledge and his work take hold of him as also his past experience. When his work takes hold of him, he becomes good by good action, bad by bad action’ – meaning that good action will produce a desirable reincarnation, bad action an undesirable one.”

Yajnavalkya describes the body, or matter, as ignorance, and each death as an opportunity for the soul, as it temporarily leaves a body, before entering another body, to dispel ignorance. A series of incarnations, then, allows the self to become ever more “beautiful.” 

“As a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, turns it into another newer and dispelled its ignorance, make unto himself another, newer and more beautiful shape, even so does this self, after having thrown away this body and dispelled its ignorance make unto himself another, newer and more beautiful shape … According as one acts, according as one behaves, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil.”

The emphasis on the role of “knowledge” in the process of cosmicization is probably the one insight that allowed reincarnation to achieve its full elaboration as the tripartite doctrine. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad says “Whoever knows thus, ‘I am Brahman’, becomes all this.” And once you know you are “everything,” you can never fall back into the trap of believing yourself to be just your individuated self. In other words, you are freed from the very process of rebirth. In the Egyptian funerary texts, and even more in the Ajivikas’ deterministic round of incarnations, the process of purification whereby the soul came to be detached from the limitations of a bodily existence relied on the actual experience of all existing life-forms to achieve “universalisation” – having been all things, one would be the One above the many, pure of any particular identity. For Vajnavalkya, to know that one is brahman, the Cosmic Self, or the One essence of the universe, was to become brahman. Of course, that “knowledge,” as noted above, is non-discursive, intuitive knowledge which still requires a cleansing of the heart, to cut off the attachments poisoning our views with ego-centred bias. McEvilley adds, “The attainment of this knowledge of oneself as brahman is associated with claims to omniscience on the ground that if one knows the substrate one knows all manifestations even before they are manifest.”

The claim of omniscience, which was also made by Parsva, Mahavira and the Buddha, as well as many other sages, is sometimes misunderstood as meaning that such realised beings know absolutely everything in the sense of what today a huge computer does! What is meant by omniscience is that these sages have the ability to empathise with all things, in such a way that they feel what these are from within. “This knowledge of underlying unity, or of the featureless substrate as oneself, terminates the illusion of individuation and constitutes release from the wheel of incarnations.” In that sense, ominiscience is another word for universalisation, and also for cosmicization. 

In the Chandogya Upanisad, Uddalaka, also a ksatriya, taught a very similar doctrine of release as moksa, stressing that works, or ritual observances were, no longer sufficient. “The essential distinction which, he suggests, determines whether one is reincarnated or released is a kind of knowledge … One who knows this new doctrine, he says, will ‘be released’ and will have everything, or the all, for its self – that is, will become cosmicized.”

That both Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka belonged to the ksatriya caste, as did also Mahavira, the Buddha (but not Gosala, whose name means cowshed, because this is where he was born, and had spent his early life in poverty) is indication for McEvilley that what we see as a religious ferment (Pande) in the 6th century BCE, had deep social roots. Aryan expansion had stalled, and the question then had become “we have won the war, how can we win the peace?” that is, how do we bring social harmony to the lands now occupied. The ksatriya caste of political leaders, whether kings or heads of tribal republics, then stepped in to offer a life-path that would give meaning to all people’s lives, irrespective of caste, that is, the chance to achieve the cosmicization which, when equated with a “return to the realm of the gods” had been reserved for Brahmins.

As for the tripartite doctrine of reincarnation, McEvilley concludes that, as the various stages of its elaboration is clearly visible in India, whereas the doctrine suddenly appears in Greece, already fully formed, there is no doubt that it passed from India to Greece.


Richard F. Gombrich – How Buddhism Began (1996)

Thomas McEvilley – The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002)

Govind Chandra Pande – Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (1957)

When moksa is achieved, Atman returns to Brahman, the source, as a drop of water returns to the ocean (Credits Don Kennedy & Mark Cartwright)