As I delve into the Buddhist literature deeper and deeper, particularly the Theravāda sutta literature, I am getting convinced more and more that when we use the term ‘rebirth’, and more so, the grosser English equivalents like ‘metempsychosis’ and ‘re-incarnation’, to signify what the Buddha talked about when he referred to the apparent continuity of the ‘life process’ after death, we are getting it all wrong. I have till now also been unable to find the equivalent of the Vedic term ‘Punarjanma’, which is used so very profusely in the Brāhmanic literature like the Upaniṣads and the Purāṇas. The Sanskrit/Pāli word that comes up again and again in the Buddhist context is ‘bhava’ which has been translated as ‘becoming’, perhaps rightly so. But, would it be right to translate this very word also as rebirth, re-incarnation, punarjanma, and the like, when it seems so very clear that bhava does not stand at all for any of these, because the very notion of rebirth/re-incarnation/punarjanma carries within it the concept of a permanent entity moving from birth to birth?
I remember a beautiful metaphor from somewhere that compares the notion of this recurrence of saṁsāra in Hinduism with that in Buddhism. If this recurrence is like a necklace of pearls in Hinduism where the pearls stand for various janmas and the string for the eternal ātman, in Buddhism it is like a pile of coins where each coin, each birth, thought dependent for its support on the coin below, on the birth that came before, does not have any eternal binding entity holding them together, only the unseen ‘gravity’ of karma. Isn’t it right, therefore, that the actual term in the Buddhist sense, used for this recurrence of lives, ought to be bhava, or, to be technically more exact, punarbhava/punabbhava/’re-becoming’/recurrent becoming, rather that punarjanma/rebirth/re-incarnation/metempsychosis?