(Er. Dr. Ramiyar P. Karanjia in conversation with Parsi Times)
The concept of rebirth and reincarnation is one of the beliefs of many religions. We have been born as Zoroastrians and Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia enlightens us about this concept with regard to the Mazdayasni Zarathushti religion.
P.T. : Sir, does the concept of rebirth exist in the Mazdayasni Zarathushti religion? Why do some Zoroastrians feel that a departed soul has returned to the family when there is a new birth in the family?
RK: The idea of re-birth or re-incarnation is an integral part of Hindu philosophy. It is the belief that after a person’s death, the soul of that person has to invariably come back to earth taking the body of another human being, order to fulfil its Karmic debts, especially to pay for it’s sins.
However re-incarnation is not a part of the mainstream Zoroastrian religious philosophy. Many Zoroastrians however do believe in this teaching and feel that a departed soul has returned to the family when there is a new birth in the family. The idea of rebirth helps to alleviate some harsh realities of life, like death, and hence is followed by many people. The teaching of re-birth is not only the easiest way to explain most misfortunes of life, it is also the most convenient way to respond to unanswerable existential questions about life, death and destiny.
Zoroastrian philosophy explains the misfortunes of life and questions about life and death in a different manner. In order to understand these answers one has to understand the accept Zoroastrian concept of good and evil and the nature of good and evil.
The phenomenon of re-birth or re-incarnation in a certain limited manner is a reality in nature but is not so simplistic that it could be characterized in yes and no. Re-birth may be a remote possibility after certain types of death, but not an inevitability after death in general. Within the phenomenon itself there are several possibilities, like transmigration and differences in gestation period between two lives.
The teaching of re-incarnation is not compatible with Zoroastrian religious philosophy and world view in general as it is not compatible with the following teachings of the religion:
- Remembrance of souls of departed ones since times immemorial, irrespective of the number of years after death.
- Linear nature of Zoroastrian cosmogony as against cyclical nature as in Hndu philosophy. According to Zoroastrian cosmogony there is only one beginning and end of the world.
- The idea of Heaven, hell and purgatory and gradual progress of the soul is not consistent with the idea of re-incarnation.
- Zoroastrian souls have to pass through two judgements after death. The first judgement is immediately after death after which the soul gets its place in heaven, hell or purgatory. The second judgement is to take place at the end of time. This idea of two judgements is also inconsistent with the idea of re-incarnation.
- The Zoroastrian apocalyptic teaching of Tan-e-pasen is also inconsistent with the idea of re-incarnation. Tan-e-pasen means that after the end of time the soul will get the spiritual constituents of the physical body, and will appear as the person looked in his youth. If a person has led several lives, this teaching would not have been there.
Moreover, none of the extant Zoroastrian texts mention anything about rebirth. In books like Ardaviraf Nameh and Hadokht Yasht, which deal exclusively with the state of soul after death, no mention whatsoever of re-incarnation is there. These books only talk of heaven, hell and purgatory.
There are some within Zoroastrian religion, like Ilm-e-Khshnoom, the mystic Zoroastrian school of thought which believe this teaching to be part of the Zoroastrian religious teachings. Dasturji Khurshedji Dabu, also subscribed to belief of re-incarnation, most probably because he was sympathetic towards the Theosophical system of philosophy.
The schools of thoughts which subscribe to the religious philosophy of re-incarnation quote two indirect evidences from Zoroastrian texts to support their contention. However mainstream Zoroastrian scholars have explained both these references in a different way.
P.T. : If our Scriptures do not mention the concept of rebirth then how is the concept of Karma described in our Scriptures vis-à-vis other religions.
RK: The doctrine of Karma (action and reaction) is a part of Zoroastrian religion, and is enshrined in the idea of the Law of Asha. We have the following teachings regarding the Law of Karma:
- Good unto good, evil unto evil
- Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction
- The soul is responsible for all actions done during the life time.
However having the teaching of Karma (that is, good unto good and evil unto evil) does not mean that the soul has to take re-birth for the rewards or retributions of the actions done in life.
P.T. : Please explain the journey of the soul in the Zoroastrian religion.
RK: Zoroastrian religion explains many Stages of the soul’s journey. The first stage is before creation when the soul was a part of the pure light in Endless Time. The second stage is in the spiritual world where individual souls were created. The Zoroastrian word for soul is urvan or ravan which means “the chooser”. Here they were attacked by Ahriman, the evil spirit, and hence they decided to take birth in the material world to fight evil and overpower it once and for all.
The third stage of the soul is in this material world with a human body, as a soldier of Ahura Mazda to fight evil. It his world the friends of the soul are wisdom, good mind, conscience, intellect, Will and reasoning. Its enemies are lie, jealousy, anger, revenge, excessive need, envy, excess and deficiency. Every soul has an exclusive Fravashi (Asho Farohar) as it guide. Sarosh Yazad is the guardian of all souls. In the material world the soul has to depend on the mind for guidance as a human can reached the soul only through the mind. Most of the times, the Mind tries to rule the soul. Religions give spiritual disciplines like ethics, prayers, meditation, and practices (tarikats) to control the mind and reach the soul. Mind continually tries to create deception and makes the best efforts not to allow the soul to operate.
The fourth stage of the soul is when it separates from the body at the time of death. It stays near the body for three days and nights and then begins its journey to the other world on the dawn of the fourth day from when starts its fifth stage. In this stage the soul’s Judgement takes place and then it crosses the Chinwad Bridge, led by its Daena to its station in the spiritual world. Here the soul continues to progress very slowly. Its only expectations from the living people are that they remember it in a pleasant manner and do good deeds in its memory. At the end of this stage, the second Judgement of the soul takes place for souls who have not yet reached the highest heaven (Garothman). Then the soul stays in Garothman till the end of the world.
The last stage of every soul is when it will go back to the Timeless World from where it had first begun. This stage of existence is known as Frasho-kereti or Frashogard.
P.T. : Which religions do not support the theory of rebirth?
RK: None of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam support re-incarnation. The philosophy of re-incarnation is supported only by Hinduism and other Indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. However most of these religions believe that the soul can be reborn either as an animal or a human being.
However, we ordinary humans need not be bogged down by this eternal existential question. To substantiate what I am saying, let me narrate a Buddhist parable before I end. Once, when a devotee asked Gautam Buddha whether rebirth was a possibility or not, the great prophet said, live well your life, then you need not bother whether you are coming back or not.
Today, for most Zarthoshtis, accepting or rejecting re-incarnation has become a matter of personal belief. But we need to be assured that whatever is to happen in nature will happen, and whatever that may happen, will be the reflection of our present life. Hence we should only concentrate on making our present life a good, ethical, helpful and enjoyable experience.