Unless you're Hindu, you probably have a pretty simple idea of what reincarnation is: You live, you die, and repeat. Taken as little more than that, this can be a comforting alternative to other religions' views on the afterlife. But there are a few more key details that make this belief much more than a get-out-of-death-free card.
Although the belief in reincarnation appears within some Buddhist traditions, it's actually part of Hindu doctrine, or official religious law. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, known as samsara, describes what your soul goes through as it inhabits a body, leaves that body upon it's death, then returns to Earth in a new physical form. And this may come as a surprise to some people, but the goal isn't to remain in this cycle forever.
According to G. Padmanabhan, public relations officer of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, when you begin a new life or incarnation, you're supposed to strive to be better than you were in your previous life — otherwise, you'll never escape the cycle, which is described as achieving moksha.
"The quality of human life in a particular incarnation will depend upon the quality of one's accumulated past karma or actions," Padmanabhan explains. "Every action has a result." So, it isn't exactly correct to say that samsara is a punishment for past deeds, but it is believed that reincarnation occurs because you still have something to learn. More than that, you're being reborn because you have yet to live the life of a truly righteous Hindu.
It's only when you live out the best, most moral incarnation of yourself that you'll find salvation, or birthlessness, upon dying, Padmanabhan explains. Although this pursuit of liberation from samsara lies at the heart of the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, it tends to get overlooked in most Western depictions. The reward is not to be reborn as royalty — it's to never be reborn again so that your soul finally rests with God.