Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Star Wars and Reincarnation

MadameAce: After the release of The Force Awakens, many of us were left wondering just who the hell Rey is. She’s powerful in the Force and certainly an important enough person in their universe to warrant being the star of three movies. So what’s the deal? Is she Obi-Wan’s granddaughter? Luke’s child? Or something else altogether? A less common theory says that she’s Anakin Skywalker reincarnated. The theory posits that due to Anakin’s crimes, he was sent back to the world as Rey to live on a desert planet. There are a number of things wrong with that—being a girl is not actually a punishment, for one thing—but while I disagree with the original poster regarding why Anakin may or may not have been reincarnated, could reincarnation even be possible within the Star Wars universe?

Well, yes. Regardless of whether or not this theory is true, it can easily fit into the narrative, and Lady Geek Girl and I are about to explain why.

(image via overmental)

Lady Geek Girl: Star Wars borrows heavily from Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, which does incorporate reincarnation, though many people in the Western world misunderstand what reincarnation is actually about. According to Buddhist teachings, people are stuck in an endless cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth called saṃsāra. This cycle is not a good thing, because it means being stuck in a cycle of suffering. However, one can break out of this cycle by achieving enlightenment. One can only do this by following the Middle Way, aka Buddhism. Through meditation, one can achieve insight about the truth of life and extinguish desire, which allows one to escape suffering and end the cycle of rebirth. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment and break that cycle. But just because Star Wars borrows from Buddhism, that doesn’t mean it follows it strictly. While there is no direct evidence that reincarnation exists in the Star Wars universe, it could certainly be a possibility.

MadameAce: To date, there are no characters in Star Wars who have been reincarnated, either in Legends or in canon. If these characters do exist, the story hasn’t brought them to light. But that does not necessarily mean that they aren’t there. In Star Wars, we have seen a bunch of supernatural and spiritual elements telling us about life after death. The Jedi believe that when a person or living creature dies, their energy returns to the Force and becomes one with it. We have evidence that this is both true and untrue. The Star Wars universe boasts people returning to life from the dead, ghosts, and even possession. Mother Talzin is able to continue living on through the use of magic, Ahsoka is revived after her murder, and Obi-Wan’s ghost spends the original trilogy not giving Luke useful and much needed information.

But while these people never became one with the Force, other characters have, such as Qui-Gon Jinn. While this seems like a bit of an oversight and error in the worldbuilding, when we remember the Buddhist philosophy that has helped influence Star Wars, it starts to make a bit of sense. Buddhism teaches that enlightenment breaks the cycle of life and death by returning a person’s energy to the universe—or in this case, by a person returning to the Force. We know that the Force resides in all living things, regardless of whether or not a person is Force-sensitive. I pointed out in an earlier post that characters like Han, Chirrut, and Sabine use the Force all the time, despite lacking the ability to master it. In Buddhism, people who achieve enlightenment can break the cycle. People who don’t are reincarnated, but that doesn’t mean they are completely removed from the energy of the universe or are incapable of moving forward in life. With every reincarnation, they can become closer to enlightenment. In the Star Wars universe, this would translate to people becoming Force sensitive in their later reincarnations.

Qui-Gon Jinn becomes one with the living Force, but while Qui-Gon achieved enlightenment, he eventually regains his sense of individuality and his spirit returns to talk to Yoda. How he does this is never fully explained—though he does tell us that it takes him over ten years to establish communication because he had to spend those years practicing and learning more about the Force. Even then, his ghost is weak and can only appear in places where the Force is strong.

Lady Geek Girl: In Buddhist cosmology, there are ten different spiritual realms that people can journey to. There are the six lower realms or states of existence:

  • Hell: This is a state or realm of claustrophobic aggression where a person perceives no freedom of action and has very little life force or energy.
  • Hunger: Also known as the Hungry Ghosts’ realm or state, this is a stage where a person is possessive and has insatiable desires that controls their actions.
  • Animality: This stage or realm is where a person is entirely governed or dominated by their instincts.
  • Arrogance: This is a state or realm where the ego dominates a person, making them more concerned for themselves and their wants and needs.
  • Humanity: This is a state where a person’s mind is highly developed and is unique in the way that there is potential in this realm to transcend suffering.
  • Rapture: Also known as the Devas’ or gods’ realm, this is a realm of pleasure where one’s desires are fulfilled, but this state is temporary and can change by the slightest circumstances that disrupt that pleasure.

Then there are the four higher or noble realms or states of existence:

  • Buddhahood: This is the highest of the ten realms where one is in a condition of pure happiness that is not dependent on one’s circumstances or controlled by the ego or the self. When a person achieves Buddhahood, they have achieved enlightenment and will no longer be reborn into suffering.
  • Bodhisattva: These are people who are capable of achieving enlightenment, but instead of breaking the cycle of life and death, they remain to help others achieve enlightenment.
  • Pratyeka Buddha: Also called lone Buddha or a Buddha for himself, this is where one discovers partial truths through their own efforts and abilities.
  • Sravka: The learning stage or disciple of the Buddha, this is someone who is studying or seeking truth, self-improvement, and enlightenment.

One can journey to these realms after they die and are reborn. For example, someone could die in the Hell stage and be reborn in the Hunger, Human, or many other stages. But these stages can also be understood as a state of being that a person can journey to throughout their life. Takashi Tsuji, a writer for Buddhanet.net, explains:

…[T]hese ten realms may be viewed as unfixed, nonobjective worlds, as mental and spiritual states of mind. These states of mind are created by men’s thoughts, actions, and words. In other words, psychological states. These ten realms are “mutually immanent and mutually inclusive, each one having in it the remaining nine realms.” For example, the realm of human beings has all the other nine states (from hell to Buddhahood). Man is at the same time capable of real selfishness, creating his own hell, or is truly compassionate, reflecting the compassion of Amida Buddha. Buddhas too have the other nine realms in their minds, for how can a Buddha possibly save those in hell if he himself does not identify with their suffering and guide them to enlightenment.

We can see this in Force sensitive people and the Jedi and Sith; throughout the Star Wars stories we see different characters journey from one stage to the next.

MadameAce: We have characters ruled by their anger and animalistic instincts, such as Maul and Ventress, and then we have other characters seeking out truth and self-improvement, like Luke. This is also where things can get a little confusing. For Qui-Gon, enlightenment and Buddhahood are a possibility. He has broken the cycle of life and death and no longer reincarnates, but he has retained his individuality in order to teach and guide Yoda. This means that though Buddhahood is open to Qui-Gon at any time, he is instead a Bodhisattva, because he has chosen to guide others along the path, meaning that he has achieved enlightenment but returned to help others.

(image via starwars.com)

Yoda, in turn, when he discovers that Qui-Gon retained his sense of self to come back as a Force ghost, latches onto this idea that he too can retain his individuality after death. Since enlightenment means becoming one with the universe and that there is no longer an individual self, Yoda doing this means he could be rejecting enlightenment. This is entirely a possibility, since Yoda doesn’t fully understand the Force by the time Qui-Gon first speaks to him. However, twenty years later, upon Yoda’s death, his full body ascends to become one with the universe. During that time frame, it’s possible that Qui-Gon would have been able to teach Yoda the full truth. The cycle of life and death are now broken for Yoda, but like Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, he retains his own individuality in order to guide Luke.

Lady Geek Girl: Through the Force, true enlightenment can only be achieved through balance, which the Force continuously seeks. The Force requires balance, not one extreme or the other. Buddhism was also founded with the idea that the path to enlightenment was through the Middle Way. Siddhartha Gautama discovered that neither his original princely life of wealth and pleasure, nor the life of an ascetic, would help him escape suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth. In Star Wars, despite talk of balance, we tend to see only two extremes, the Jedi and the Sith, the light and dark side of the Force. However, while not explored in the movies, some Jedi have taken a different path, such as the Grey Jedi, which is a Jedi that uses both the light and the dark side of the Force. Although never explicitly stated in canon, a popular fan theory suggests that Qui-Gon is also a Grey Jedi. This theory would definitely explain why he is never given a seat on the Jedi Council—if true, he would have been rejected because his own practices were not fully in line with the Jedi code. If Qui-Gon did find a Middle Path, perhaps this is why he was able to be the first to return as a Force ghost to teach others. Maybe Qui-Gon is the first character we meet to truly achieve enlightenment.

While there is no Chosen One in Buddhism, it makes sense that if the understanding of the Force was inspired by Buddhism, it would require balance. Anakin is meant to bring about this balance but gives into his fears and desire for power and joins the Sith. Part of Anakin’s problem was finding the correct path and discovering the real truth about life. He doesn’t fit in with the extremes the Jedi profess and he later realizes through Luke’s help that he doesn’t fit with the Sith’s either. Neither side helps to reveal the truth to him, and ultimately Anakin fails to bring balance. He kills almost all the Jedi and then kills the Emperor, leaving the Force still unbalanced. The most balance we could say Anakin brought to the Force was through Luke who, like Qui-Gon, seems to be more of a Grey Jedi. Luke was taught the ways of the Force as strictly as Anakin was and ultimately rejects Obi-Wan and Yoda’s insistence that he needs to kill his father. Perhaps Luke does bring balance because he does follow more of a Middle Path, but Anakin ultimately failed in his mission to bring balance. If we add to that all the bad karma that Anakin surely racked up over the years, then it is more than likely that Anakin would not escape the cycle of saṃsāra.

(image via bustle.com)

MadameAce: Which brings us back to Rey. It’s not hard to notice the similarities between Rey and Anakin—they’re both great pilots, they treat droids as people, and we even see Rey playing with a fighter pilot helmet in a shot that was eerily reminiscent of a young Anakin during The Phantom Menace. Then there’s her Force vision—unlike Luke, Anakin’s own son, Anakin’s old lightsaber actively called out to Rey, indicating a bond or connection between the two of them.

I’m a firm believer that Rey is a Chosen One, just as Anakin was a Chosen One. The question then becomes whether or not they’re individual Chosen Ones in a long line of Chosen Ones, or the same person reincarnated over and over again. The theory is a little farfetched, since in all the Star Wars stories we have, reincarnation has yet to feature. But as we’ve just discussed, it is certainly a possibility that could fit into the worldbuilding already present. And it would go a long way toward explaining why Anakin’s ghost isn’t currently bitch-slapping Kylo Ren until he apologizes to his mother.

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