Eastern and Western Cultural Beliefs
The idea of the existence of a soul or continuation of existence in the otherworld is one that has been adopted by Eastern and Western cultures, but their interpretations are different from each other. A handful of organized religions make up the majority of beliefs throughout the population of the world, and so their influences on cultural beliefs have had enormous ramifications for the Western and Eastern parts of the planet.
Western Religious Influences on Cultures' Beliefs
With the spread of Christianity toward Europe and the Americas, Western cultural beliefs began to accept the idea that your conduct on earth and your deeds are the main factor that will determine the kind of afterlife you will experience. They believe in heaven, which is an eternal place inhabited by the purer and virtuous spirits, and hell, where all evil spirits are sent. In hell, the evil spirits will be punished for their deeds and will be burnt in the eternal hellfire. The Catholic Church emphasizes a period of purgatory, a state between heaven and hell, which allows purification of the spirit so it can reach heaven.
Judaism is one of the earliest and most popular religions of the Western world. However, not all Jews believe in the afterlife and are more concerned about life in the mortal world. But they do believe that after a person dies, his soul goes to a place similar to heaven or enters the wheel of reincarnation. They also believe that souls of bad and wicked people are made to suffer in the afterlife, and are then finally destroyed.
According to the tenets of Islam, death marks the end of physical life and the beginning of a period of rest. This will continue until the Day of Resurrection, when everyone will have to appear in front of Allah, who will judge their earthly deeds and decide their eternal fate. In most Muslim teachings, heaven is described as an exquisite place where all men will be decked with jewels and drink holy waters and enjoy all earthly pleasures, while in hell evil spirits will be devoid of food and water and lead a miserable and painful afterlife.
Eastern Religious Influences on Cultures' Beliefs
Unlike the Western cultural beliefs, Eastern cultures were influenced by religions that were more inclined toward a psychological view of the afterlife. They place immense importance on the attainment of the highest level of consciousness.
The cycle of life, that is, the process of birth, death, and rebirth, is something that every living being has to undergo, until it attains moksha, or liberation. The law of karma (cause and effect) is the real reason why a soul is born again and again in different forms — the necessity of “reaping one's karma” compels human beings to be reborn in successive lifetimes.
Belief in the afterlife is more with a view that a person would be reborn again as a different entity. Heaven and hell are not viewed as the final dwelling places, but more like a place of judgment where, based on your earthly deeds, you can be punished or rewarded, which is reflected in the next life you will have when you are reincarnated or reborn. The final destination of all souls is to become one with the Almighty, with the creator of the universe.
Hindus believe that the soul, or the atman, is immortal and is trapped in a physical body to undergo the process of birth and death. The main aim of a soul is to seek salvation, or moksha, and free itself from the cyclic pattern of the world (samsara). Reincarnation is an accepted fact, but one that is seen as a phase of suffering and pain.
Buddhist beliefs, to a large extent, are rooted in the Hindu ideologies of reincarnation and karma, and share the ideology that the final aim of a mortal being is to escape the cycle of birth and death. Gautama Buddha explained that desires keep a being attached to the mortal world and are the real reason why people are bound to the process of death and rebirth.
To escape the wheel of reincarnation, one needs to let go of all desires. Only then will a person attain nirvana, or liberation.
For Tibetan Buddhists, the spirit of the deceased person goes through a three-stage process called the bardos. Stage one begins at the death of an individual and is regarded as the time when the soul of the deceased person realizes that its mortal existence is over. In stage two of the bardos, or the luminous mind, the soul experiences hallucinations related to the karma/ deeds of its life. The last stage is one in which the soul is prepared for its next life, the rebirth.
According to Tibetan Buddhists, those who have highly evolved intellects and have raised their consciousness to the highest levels are able to completely forego the process of bardos and directly attain nirvana, the ultimate destination for all mortals.
Basic Differences Between Eastern and Western Beliefs
In Eastern cultures, reincarnation is a core belief, and the fact that you will be reincarnated does away with the need for a permanent heaven or hell. Also, the law of karma is put into action and you will be rewarded or punished for your deeds in your next incarnation.
In Western cultures, however, there is only one life, which is why your sins or good deeds will be the ultimate determinant for your afterlife. Heaven and hell are properly described planes of existence that are also referred to as the otherworld, and your final existence will be decided based on your physical life.
In Eastern beliefs, the aim of mortal existence should be to gain a permanent release from the cycle of life, and become one with the divine. Western cultures focus on living a life in a virtuous and right manner, so the soul of the deceased can go to heaven in its afterlife.
Eastern cultures consider release from ignorance, ego, and suffering as the key to finding the ultimate bliss, in the form of nirvana, or liberation; however, Western cultures considered release from the mortal body as the main purpose of afterlife. Eastern cultures view reincarnation as a means to reward and punish individuals for the acts and deeds done in this lifetime. In Western traditions, a person will be rewarded or punished for his life's deeds, and the kind of afterlife a person experiences after he dies is dependent upon these deeds.
As Dr. Charles E. Osgood, a well-known American psychologist and cross-cultural researcher aptly summarized, “Western culture constantly strives to seek and establish ‘the truth,’ while Eastern religions focus more on accepting the truth as given and in finding the right balance.”