Q: I have been researching the origins of the reincarnation theory in the Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda (the oldest) and found little or nothing thus far. How is this possible when reincarnation seems such a corner stone in the faith today?
A: It is no wonder that you have been searching for some time. Your search results so far are correct. There are indeed no references to reincarnation in the Rig Veda. Or for that matter in the other Vedas (Sama, Yajur and Atharva). Reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul, was also known as metempsychosis (Latin through Greek: ‘meta’-after, ‘empsuhkos’- having a soul inside). There are several clear dates and times that will help us determine when this idea appeared. It is very clear that this was a developed idea by the time of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha). The dating of the birth and life of Buddha has gone through a change in the recent years. The oldest date of the birth of Buddha was the Thervada school of Sri Lanka who fixed his birth at 624. The Mahayana tradition has several dates—all of them 300 year later or more. Western historians had considered the birth of Buddha to have been about 560 B.C. and this date was actually considered the first fixed date in Indian history. Yet more recent historians and studies now place Buddha much earlier at 400-350 B.C., before the invasion by Alexander the Great (327 B.C.). I mention this to say that this is a definite time in which reincarnation was certainly known and well-developed. But the most helpful material is the citations of the idea in the portions of the Upanishads. This seems to be the most helpful source for dating the teaching and idea. The origin of these Upanishads were about 500-600 B.C. The dating of the Samhitas of the Vedas is a little more demanding and there is less certainty about the precise time of writing and use. At least we know that they were earlier and did not have the teaching of reincarnation in them.
It will shock many people to realize that this teaching is not present in the most authoritative texts of Hinduism. But Hinduism is not a religious system based upon the authority of a revealed truth in one person or in one set of writings. This is often the basis of the misconception. Many people have been told that ‘all religions are the same,’ and therefore they search the Vedas for modern Hindu teaching in vain. The Vedas do not develop many of the present day teachings of Hinduism. But they are searching Hinduism with a non-Hindu idea. They are searching with an idea that ‘truth is absolute and does not change’ in a religious system that teaches that ‘truth is not absolute and does change.’ They are operating on the misassumption that all religions are the same. This is exactly what a person should do if they were a Christian. To find out if something is true- they should search the words of Jesus and the Bible for the presence or absence of something. Jesus and the Bible teach that truth is absolute. But to do the same with Hinduism would be mistaken. Unfortunately the idea that ‘all religions are the same’ does not help in practice and is faulty. In Hinduism you will find opposite teachings embraced under the same banner. In Hinduism there are various writings with authority (Vedas, Upanishads, Darshanas, Puranas, Tantras). It largely depends on what tradition-- and language and culture will often determine which writings are given more weight. The mainstay ideas of Hinduism are to be found in more recent writings and traditions. For example, the pantheon of gods in Hinduism is nearly completely different today from those of the Vedic period. Within Hinduism this is not inconsistent. But the idea that there is one final and authoritative writing does not fit Hinduism.