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Now that I’ve lived with Hindus for the past three years, it’s odd to me when I hear Westerners talking about reincarnation.

For many in the West, it seems like reincarnation has become something of a game. People seem delighted to “discover” who their “previous selves” were. Apparently, according to wikihow, there are three easy options to figuring out who you were in previous lives. Another site bills discovering your earlier identities as a “strange but wonderful” experience.

Reincarnation in the land from which the idea originated is anything but a “strange but wonderful” to be played with. For every Hindu I’ve discussed reincarnation with, it’s a more troubling and even terrifying belief. For a Hindu – reincarnation means failure. Reincarnation means you’ve missed entry into eternal bliss yet again. Reincarnation means another lifetime (or more) consigned to the suffering and bondage that is life in this world.

While there are some quixotic aspects to the idea even here (you haven’t seen a romantic movie until you’ve seen the same couple fall in love over two or three or four (!) reincarnated lifetimes) – really the only thing you need to know about your previous lives is that they were failures. You failed to live well enough to fulfill your earthly duties and get enough good works on your side to obtain salvation.

Where’s the fun in that?

At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I think there’s one thing reincarnation gets right. It’s not the multiple lives or serial attempts to earn your way to freedom from cycles of suffering – it’s the palpable sense that this life is a wash. It was a failure from the start. It’s unredeemable until you can manage to start again.

The West is more optimistic. We like our self-help, self-improvement sections of the bookstore and the 3-minute news segments proclaiming a new way to be-and-have-it-all. “New life” is a concept tied more to moving to an exotic local, getting a dream job, or dying your hair an adventurous color. We like the idea of being reincarnated to start over – we’d just prefer to do it as many times before death as we can.

Into the self-assured self-improvement attempts of the West and the surrender to cycles of birth into bondage of the East, Jesus speaks the same message: “You must be born again.”

The Easterner’s heart quickens – this they know. Of course you must be born again. They’ve been saying that since long before Jesus! But Jesus isn’t simply stating a fact of universal bondage to “trying again”. He’s saying you can have a new, spiritual life – one guaranteed salvation and drenched in liberty – right now. At this very moment. No waiting, no death, no more lifetimes of trying.

The Westerner’s eyes narrow. We’d prefer to think we just need to improve what we’ve got. A little time at the gym, or some help from a support group. But here’s Jesus talking about rebirth – a gift that means you’ve got to start over completely. A rebirth at the very center of your being. A new life pulsating in the secret places you keep hidden under all that stuff and status and self-esteem. No more attempts to shore up the pieces of yourself fragmenting from a center that (you’d prefer not to admit) isn’t whole.

To be reincarnated means to have failed. Westerners hope that failure can be mitigated with rigorous self-attention in this life; Easterners wait for the next life to see if their attempts to break the cycle were at all effective. To both, Jesus says there’s a better rebirth possible than you have been able to imagine.

 

You might also like Why Hindus Made Me See Good Friday.

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