There has been much hoopla surrounding the construction and completion of Tower One at New York’s “Ground Zero.” It seems to me to be a modern analog to the recurring myths of reincarnation in a similar (or even identical) form.
Throughout the ages we, as a species, have been fascinated by the possibility of and the hope for rebirth. Almost every culture has believed that an immutable spirit or soul inhabits every person and has devised legends in which that soul or spirit returns in a new form once the body has died. Many world myths and legends include some form of reincarnation.
Egypt to Greece
The Greek historian Herodotus recorded ancient Egyptian ideas about reincarnation. The Egyptians, he wrote, believed that the soul passed through a variety of species – animals, marine life and birds – before once again becoming a human. The entire journey, from death of a human to rebirth as a human again, took 3,000 years. One ancient Egyptian source, the Book of Going Forth by Day, supports Herodotus' account. It states that the souls of important individuals can return to earth in the form of creatures such as the heron or crocodile.
In Greek mythology, subsequently adopted as a symbol by early Christians, the Phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated from the ashes of its predecessor. This sense of rebirth carries over into the Greek myth of the creation of mankind. Prometheus was given the task of creating mankind by Zeus. The legend goes that he molded the first man from mud (seems fitting, doesn’t it?). He then gave him fire, which was contrary to Zeus’ instructions, so Prometheus was chained to a mountain where a giant eagle ate his liver every day and every night the liver grew back.
In Australia, most Aborigines believe that human souls come from spirits left behind by ancestral beings who roamed the earth during a mythical period called “Dreamtime.” They believe that the birth of a child is caused by an ancestral spirit entering a woman's body. After death, the person's spirit then returns to the ancestral powers.
According to traditional African belief, the souls or spirits of the recently dead linger near the grave for a time, seeking other bodies – reptile, mammal, bird or human – to inhabit. Many African traditions link reincarnation to the worship of ancestors, who may be reborn as their own descendants or as animals associated with their clans or groups.
The Zulu people of southern Africa believe that a person’s soul is reborn many times in the bodies of different animals, ranging in size from tiny insects to large elephants, before being born as a human again. The Yoruba and Edo of western Africa share the widely held notion that people are the reincarnations of their ancestors. They refer to these people as “Father Has Returned” or “Mother Has Returned.”
In the Arctic, where animals are critical to survival, the Inuit people believe that animals, as well as humans, have souls that are reborn. Hunters must perform ceremonies for the creatures they kill so that the animal spirits can be reborn and hunted in the future. When a person dies, part of his or her soul will be incarnated in the next baby born into the community. Giving the newborn the dead person’s name ensures that the child will have some of the ancestor’s qualities.
Renewal in modern religions
Reincarnation also plays a central role in Buddhism and Hinduism. According to Jayaram V, a soul reincarnates again and again on earth until it becomes perfect and reunites with the source or “godhead.” During this process, the soul enters into many bodies, assumes many forms and passes through many births and deaths.
This concept is described in the Bhagavad Gita: "Just as man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discard worn out bodies and wears new ones" (2.22).
Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism all share this belief in samsara (The Wheel of Birth and Rebirth) and karma, the idea that an individual's future incarnation depends on the way he or she lived. People who have done good deeds and led moral lives are reborn into higher social classes, while those who have not are doomed to return as members of the lower classes, or as animals. Only by achieving the highest state of spiritual development can a person escape samsara altogether, a condition often referred to as Nirvana.
And, of course, most Westerners are familiar with the Christian belief that Jesus, who was crucified by the Romans, came back to life, ascended to heaven and who is bound to return to earth to create a just and happy world.
I guess everybody wants to live forever. I only hope that, with the most recent iteration of climate change, I come back in a more heat-tolerant form. I was thinking that, perhaps, either a saltwater crocodile or great white shark might work quite well. The legend of the Phoenix has great appeal to me as well.
Dave Bresler is the founder of NetworkNetwork!, a New York City-based professional networking business.