Copyright © 2011 by Theosophical University Press
The general doctrine of reimbodiment or rebirth is one of the most widely spread over the globe; and it is likewise one of the most ancient beliefs that has ever been cast into systematic formulation. It has been taught in one or another of its various philosophical or religious presentations in every age and among every race of men. This doctrine, which embraces the entire scope of the antenatal and postmortem history of the soul, or preferably of the reimbodying ego, contains a number of differing mystical aspects, one or more of which at different times was especially emphasized. Sometimes, because the background of Esoteric Philosophy was more or less lost sight of, one or another of these aspects rose so high in importance as virtually to exclude the other forms or aspects — a fact which brought about an obscuration of the all-comprehensive root teaching. This historical loss of the fundamental doctrine, with its over-accentuation of one aspect of the general doctrine, accounts for the difference in form of presentation, and for the defects in substance, that the teaching concerning the postmortem adventures of the human ego has taken in the various archaic literatures of the world.
In reading various religious and philosophical literatures on the subject of reincarnation, rebirth, etc., one finds a number of words used as if they were synonymous, such as:
this last being as it were an appendix to the other seven.
Now while these seven or eight different words may be used in a loose sense as signifying practically the same thing, nevertheless, not one of them, when used with precision, means what any other one of the series does; so that in accurate writing one has to be careful in his choice of these words. Indeed, each of these words is a key unlocking one of the portals of the sevenfold Mystery-teaching which deals generally with the adventures that befall the excarnate ego after it has quitted its physical body, has left the kamaloka, and has begun its peregrination through the spheres. It would seem useful, therefore, to give a brief analysis of these different words.
Preexistence means that the human soul did not come into imbodiment or existence with its present birth into earth-life; in other words, that the human ego existed before it was born on earth anew.
The English Neoplatonist of the seventeenth century, Henry More, had his own philosophical views about a preexistence of the soul. For example, the following is found in his Philosophical Poems (Psychozoia):
I would sing the pre-existency
Of human souls and live once o'er again
By recollection and quick memory
All that is passed since first we all began.
But all too shallow be my wits to scan
So deep a point, and mind too dull to climb
So dark a matter. But thou, O more than man!
Aread, thou sacred soul of Plotin dear,
Tell me what mortals are! Tell what of old we were!
Henry More here makes Plotinus, the great Neoplatonic teacher, answer:
A spark or ray of the Divinity,
Clouded with earthly fogs, and clad in clay;
A precious drop sunk from eternity
Spilt on the ground, or rather slunk away.
For when we fell when we first 'gan t'essay
By stealth of our own selves something to been
Uncentering ourselves from our one great stay,
Which rupture we new liberty did ween,
And from that prank right jolly wits ourselves did deem.
Reimbodiment in its turn means that the living entity, i.e. the reimbodying ego, takes upon itself a new body at some time after death, although this "new body" by no means necessarily signifies that the reimbodying ego assumes it on this earth to the exclusion of imbodiment on other and invisible planes. In other words, the reimbodying ego can assume bodies elsewhere than on earth. It teaches something more than that the soul merely preexists, the idea here being in addition to this that the soul takes unto itself a new body. But this particular aspect of the general doctrine of the migration or peregrination of living entities tells us not what kind of body the reimbodying ego thus newly assumes, nor whether that body be taken here on earth or elsewhere: that is to say, whether the new body is to be a visible physical body or an invisible one in the invisible realms of nature. It states only that the life-center, the reimbodying ego or monad, reimbodies itself; and this thought is the essence of the specific meaning of this word.
Rebirth is a term of more generalized significance. Its meaning is merely the coming into birth again, the term thus excluding specific explanations or details as to the type of reimbodiment. The likeness between the idea comprised in this word and that belonging to the term reincarnation is close, yet the two ideas are quite distinct.
Palingenesis is a Greek compound which means "coming again into being" or "becoming again." The idea as found in the philosophical literatures of the ancients who lived around the Mediterranean Sea may be illustrated by the example of the oak which produces its seed, the acorn, the acorn in its turn producing a new oak containing the same life that was passed on to it from the parent-oak. The specific meaning of the word palingenesis thus signifies the continuous transmission of an identic life in cyclical recurring phases, producing at each transformation a new manifestation or result, these several results being in each case a palingenesis or "new becoming" of the same life-stream.
Transmigration is a word which has been grossly misunderstood, as has also been the fate of the word metempsychosis. Both these words, because of the common misunderstanding of the ancient literatures, are modernly supposed to mean that the human soul at some time after death migrates into the beast realm (especially if its karma during physical life be a heavy or evil one), and afterwards is reborn on earth in a beast body. The real meaning of this statement in the ancient literatures refers, however, to the destiny of the life-atoms, and has absolutely no reference to the destiny of the human soul as an entity. The misunderstanding of this doctrine has been partly caused by the fact that it was considered an esoteric teaching by Oriental, Latin, and Greek writers, and therefore never was fully divulged in exoteric literature.
The human soul can no more migrate over and incarnate in a beast body than can the physical apparatus of a beast incarnate upwards in human flesh. Why? Because the beast vehicle offers the human soul no opening for the expression of the distinctly human powers and faculties. Nor, conversely, can the soul of a beast enter into a human body, because the impassable gulf of a psychical and intellectual nature, which separates the human and the beast kingdoms, prevents any such passage or transmigration from the one into the other. On the one hand, there is no attraction for the normal man beastwards; and, on the other, there is the impossibility that the imperfectly developed beast mind and soul can find a proper lodgment in what to it is a godlike sphere which in consequence it cannot enter. It is against natural law, for the same reason that figs do not grow of thistle, nor does one pluck grapes from a cherry tree. A human soul, or rather the human reimbodying ego, seeks incarnation in a human body because there is no attraction for it elsewhere. Human seed produces human bodies; human souls reproduce human souls.
Transmigration, however, has a specific meaning when the word is applied to the human soul: the living entity migrates or passes over from one condition to another condition or state or plane, whether in the invisible realms of nature or in the visible, and whether the state or condition be high or low. The specific meaning therefore implies nothing more than a change or a migrating of the living entity from one state or condition or plane to another. It contains in fact the combined meanings of evolution and karma; in other words, karmic evolution, as signifying the path followed by the monad in migrating from sphere to sphere, from spirit to matter and back again to spirit, and in the course of its pilgrimage entering into body after body.
In the application of this word to the life-atoms, to which particular sense are to be referred the observations of the ancients with regard to the lower realms of nature, it means, briefly, that the life-atoms which in their aggregate compose man's lower principles, at and following the change that men call death, migrate or transmigrate or pass into other bodies to which these life-atoms are psychomagnetically attracted, be these attractions high or low — and they are usually low, because their own evolutionary development is as a rule far from being advanced. Nevertheless, these life-atoms compose man's inner — and outer — vehicles or bodies, and in consequence there are various classes of these life-atoms, from the physical upwards to the astral, the purely vital, the emotional, the mental and psychical. This is, in general terms, the meaning of transmigration.
Metempsychosis is a Greek compound which may be rendered as "insouling after insouling," or "changing soul after soul." It signifies that the monadic essence or the life-consciousness-center or monad, not only is preexistent to physical birth, nor merely that the soul-entity reimbodies itself, but also that the monad during the course of its aeonic pilgrimage through the spheres or worlds, clothes itself with, or makes unto itself for its own self-expression, various ego-souls which flow forth from it; that they have each one its characteristic and individual life or soul, which, when its life-period is completed, is gathered back again into the bosom of the monad for its period of rest, at the completion of which it reissues forth therefrom upon a new cyclical pilgrimage. It is the adventures which befall this entity in its assumption of "soul" after "soul," which are grouped together under the word metempsychosis.
It is evident that all these words have strict and intimate relations with each other. For instance, every soul in its metempsychosis also obviously transmigrates; likewise, every transmigrating entity also has its metempsychoses or soul-changings, etc. But these intermingling of meanings must not be confused with the specific significance belonging to each one of these different words. The essential meaning of metempsychosis can be briefly described by saying that a monad during the course of its evolutionary peregrinations through the spheres or worlds throws forth from itself periodically a new "soul-garment," and this production and use of "souls" or "soul-sheaths" as the ages pass is called metempsychosis.
In the Hebrew Qabbalah, there is an old mystic aphorism which tells us that "a stone becomes a plant, a plant becomes a beast, a beast becomes a man, and a man becomes a god." This does not refer to the bodies of each stage; for how would it be possible for a human physical body to become a god? The profound idea behind this aphorism is that the evolving entity within the physical encasement learns and grows and passes from house to house of life, each time entering a nobler temple, and learning in each new house that it finds itself in, newer and nobler lessons than it had learned in its previous lives. Moreover, the bodies themselves likewise grow and evolve as far as they can, pari passu with the evolving ego or soul. In other words, while the inner ego or soul advances and evolves along its own spiritual and intellectual and psychic courses, so also do the various bodies in which it finds its many dwelling-places feel the impulse or urge of the indwelling evolutionary fire, and responding to it, themselves unfold or evolve into greater perfection.
The Persian mystic poet, a Sufi, Jalalu'ddin Rumi, wrote:
I died from the mineral, and became a plant;
I died from the plant and reappeared as an animal;
I died from the animal and became a man;
Wherefore then should I fear?
When did I grow less by dying?
Next time I shall die from the man
That I may grow the wings of angels.
From the angel, too, must I seek advance:
. . . . ..
Once more shall I wing my way above the angels;
I shall become that which entereth not the imagination.
The next word, reincarnation, means "reinfleshment," the significance being that the human soul imbodies itself in a human body of flesh on the earth after its period of postmortem rest in the devachan, taking up in the new body the links of physical life and individual earthly destiny which were interrupted at the ending of the reimbodying ego's last physical incarnation in earth-life. It differs generally from rebirth in this: that reincarnation means rebirth in human bodies of flesh on the earth; while the term rebirth contains the implication of possible imbodiments on earth by beings who have finished their earthly pilgrimage by evolution, but who nevertheless sometimes return to this earth in order to aid their less evolved brothers.
The last word, metensomatosis, is also a compound Greek word which may be rendered: "changing body after body" — not necessarily always using human bodies of flesh, in which point it closely resembles rebirth, but bodies of appropriate but different physical material concordant with the evolutionary stage which the human race may have reached at any time. The meaning involved in this word is difficult to explain, but may perhaps be clarified by the following: In far past ages the human race had bodies indeed, but not bodies of flesh; and in far distant ages of the future, the human race will likewise have bodies, but not necessarily bodies of flesh, for the "human" bodies of that time will be compact of ether or luminous matter, which might be called concreted light.
The particularity of meaning which the term metensomatosis contains is that of "body." The Esoteric Philosophy teaches that the assuming of bodies by entities takes place whenever and wherever experience is to be gained in and on any world or plane, visible or invisible — such bodies being only occasionally bodies of flesh. Metensomatosis can thus apply to the assumption of bodies of any kind, whether of light or ether, of spiritual substance or of physical matter.
Every one of these words deals with one aspect or phase of the general course of the destiny of the human entity, both outer and inner, as well as with entities other than human; and it should be evident that the application of them is more largely to the inner and invisible adventures of the migrating or evolving entities, than to their physical earthly life. Furthermore, every single one of these eight terms is applicable, each with its own particular meaning, to different parts of events of the history — antenatal as well as postmortem — of the human soul. Thus, the human soul not only "preexists" but "reimbodies" itself, and in doing so takes "rebirth" on this earth and by means of psychoastral "palingenesis," accomplished by means of its own particular manner of "transmigration"; the whole process largely being marked by the "metempsychosis" through which it passes, bringing about "reincarnation" or returning to human fleshly bodies on earth, thus filling its need for "bodifying" its faculties and attributes in this sphere.
One or another of these forms of coming anew into life on earth has been taught in the various ages and races of the archaic past, but a large part of the complete doctrine has always been held as esoteric. The doctrine is taught today, but in incomplete form, among more than three-quarters of the world's population. Even at so short a period of time as two thousand years ago, the entire world believed in it in one form or another. The Brahmans and Buddhists of India and the peoples of Asia, such as the Taoists of China, always were reincarnationists. Taoism, by the way, is one of the noblest and most mystical faiths to which the Asiatic mind has ever given birth, but a proper understanding of it is a rare thing, because most students take all that they study in the matter of religious and philosophical beliefs literally. All old faiths have been subject to degeneration as the ages passed, and Taoism is no exception.
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans the general doctrine of reimbodiment was accepted with varying degrees of philosophical accuracy. Yet there did exist certain schools of materialistic bias in thought, such as the Cynics and Skeptics, who prided themselves on their disbelief in the other-than-physical reality of anything whatever. Such minds have existed in all ages; and in those times of spiritual barrenness that Plato wrote of and taught, men of the skeptical and doubting type had little difficulty in winning adherents and establishing their own schools. But just as today, these ancient skeptics produced nothing in proof of their disbelief in forces and worlds superior to the physical-material sphere. As a matter of simple fact, how could the doctrine of materialism or of spiritual non-entity be proved? Matter cannot prove its own non-entity, for it indubitably exists; nor, on the other hand, can it prove or disprove the existence or non-existence of something else which it knows nothing about at all. The argument thus leads us into a vicious circle. We assuredly cannot be expected to take the biased writings that have been composed in a spirit of enthusiastic partisanship for other than what they are: special pleadings of the different sects of deniers; and, quaintly enough, there always have been deniers of another type, who deny that matter itself exists!
Beginning with Orpheus, whose influence was immense in the Greek world — an influence felt, although largely unrecognized, even in the various types of mystical thought that have prevailed in Europe — the greatest and most intuitive minds were reincarnationists. The Pythagoreans and Platonists, with their own respective shades of interpretation, all held the doctrine. Among the Romans, who followed in their lead, many great names are known to us: the early Calabrian poet and philosopher Ennius, of whose works, alas! nothing remains except a few scattered quotations preserved by fellow-poets; then later, Vergil, especially in the Aeneid (VI.724); and still later, Iamblichus, Plotinus, and indeed all the luminous line of the Neoplatonic philosophers — all were reincarnationists.
The ancient Persians, the Chaldeans and Babylonians, the ancient Teutons, the Druids of Western Europe and the Celtic races generally, were all reincarnationists — holding the general doctrine in one form or in another, different individuals interpreting the various phases, according to their own insight and philosophical capacity.
It is customary among some scholars to aver that the ancient Egyptians did not believe in reincarnation. This opinion seems to be based upon the fact that the Egyptologists have been so largely devoted to the deciphering of monumental relics and manuscripts found in the tombs, that they do not see the wood on account of the individual trees. In other words, the details of the splendid researches in Egyptology begun by Young and Champollion have so blinded the vision of Egyptologists to the more general view, that they do not yet see that it is absolutely necessary, both from the philosophical and religious standpoint, to presume its existence as a popular belief among both priests and multitude, in order to account for the archaeological remnants that are the object of their study.
In this the Egyptologists are entirely wrong. It had always been accepted among European scholars, prior to Young and Champollion, that the ancient Egyptians did indeed hold a belief of some kind in the general doctrine of reimbodiment — probably under one of its forms of metempsychosal reincarnation; and ancient Egyptian manuscripts, both of the older dynasties and of the later Alexandrian Greek period, when read with an eye to the universally accepted ideas prevalent in the countries around the Mediterranean, fully substantiate this belief. The former opinion among Europeans that the ancient Egyptians were reincarnationists, was largely based upon the statements of Herodotus, who spent a fairly long time in Egypt. According to his own statements, he had conversed not only with the priests, but with the people as to their religious and philosophical opinions; although it is of course true that being a Greek he interpreted what he heard, at least to some extent, according to his own Greek prejudices and religio-philosophical outlook.
The writers in The Encyclopaedia Britannica say of Herodotus:
At all the more interesting sites he took up his abode for a time; he examined, he inquired, he made measurements, he accumulated materials. Having in his mind the scheme of his great work, he gave ample time to the elaboration of all its parts, and took care to obtain by personal observation a full knowledge of the various countries.
Other writers, as for instance in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, say only the truth of Herodotus when the following statement is made:
He saw with his own eyes all the wonders of Egypt, and the accuracy of his observations and descriptions still excites the astonishment of travellers in that country.
When we remember that Herodotus was given free entry into the temples, and conversed upon esoteric and recondite matters with the learned priests themselves, we have reason to believe that when he tells us that the Egyptians accepted what we would call a form of metempsychosal reincarnation, he knew better what he was talking about than do scholars of some twenty-four hundred years later, whose only argument against Herodotus' assertion is that they have not yet found proof of what Herodotus said existed there.
The following are Herodotus' words, translated from the original Greek:
It was the Egyptians who first gave utterance to the following doctrine, to wit: that the soul [Herodotus here uses the word psyche] is immortal and that when the physical body decays, the soul enters into another living being* which at the moment is ready for and appropriate to it. After it has passed through all the terrestrial and aqueous and aerial forms of life, it clothes itself anew with the body of a man then becoming ready for it. This wandering or transmigration it passes through in some three thousand years. There are a number of Hellenes also who follow this same doctrine, some of olden time and some of later days, giving it forth as their own. Although I know the names of these I do not here write them down. — Euterpe, Bk. XI, 123
* The word which Herodotus uses is zoon, which
word, like its equivalent Latin term, animal, can signify “living
being” or “beast,” the latter because the beast is a living being. So is a
man a living being; but because of the human being’s possessing spiritual
and intellectual faculties and attributes which take such eminent precedence
over the mere vitality or animality of his body, the term zoon, in
Greek, or animal in Latin, was rarely if ever used for human
beings. It was, however, constantly used in a mystical sense to signify
animate beings of any kind, high or low, when the emphasis was placed upon
the body-side of being. Thus in the circle of the Zodiac the various signs
or houses or mansions thereof were called zoa, living beings,
quite in accordance with the mystical Greek idea that the celestial bodies
were “animals,” “living beings,” but in their case, ensouled or inspirited
One cannot avoid calling attention to this matter, however briefly, because of the persistent translating of this term, zoon in the Greek, or equivalently animal in the Latin, as “beast” or “animal” in the modern European sense; and this translation, because it often misses the actual mystical intent of the original Greek or Latin writer, can amount to an actual mistranslation of the original sense.
And Herodotus was a wise man in not doing so, because, as an initiate of the Mysteries, he knew perfectly well that he could not designate who the Greek philosophers were, and what their particular forms of teaching were, without immediately giving the key to esoteric aspects which he had no right to divulge. That he was an initiate we know from his own words, and from the several places where he speaks of the necessity of holding the tongue.
As a matter of fact, the belief which Herodotus ascribes to the Egyptians is not the teaching of reincarnation, per se, nor is it the true teaching of metempsychosis as taught in the Mysteries, although unquestionably the Egyptians knew both these true teachings as well as other ancient nations did. It would be unreasonable to suppose that they did not, for the knowledge of one of two phases of the general doctrine implies that at least the philosophers among them knew the other phases. The peculiar doctrine to which Herodotus here alludes, as being popular among the Egyptians, is the cyclical destiny of the psychovital parts of the human soul. This is but another way of saying that this particular Egyptian belief refers solely to the transmigration of the life-atoms forming the psychovital part of man's intermediate nature, which re-collect or come together again in a succeeding reincarnation of the evolving soul-entity or reimbodying ego.
This particular Egyptian doctrine, which formed part of the Mystery-teaching in other countries, although less strongly emphasized, lay at the back of the custom which the Egyptians had, in common with some other peoples both of the ancient and modern world, of mummifying their dead. The entire object of mummification, as the Egyptians practiced it, was a pathetic attempt to restrain as far as physically possible the transmigration of the life-atoms of the human intermediate nature and of the lower triad through the lower spheres of life, by preserving as long as possible the physical body from decay. How such a belief could have taken so firm a hold of the imagination and the religious emotions of the Egyptian people is in itself an interesting psychological study. Unquestionably the priests knew that the custom of mummification was but an imperfect preventive — if indeed a successful preventive at all — of such transmigration; but the custom became so firmly established, both in its rite and function and in popular habit, as to become one of the marked characteristics of Egyptian civilization.
The practice of mummification was in its origin of late Atlantean derivation, whether found in Egypt or in Peru or elsewhere on the globe, and demonstrates the clinging even after death to material life. The complex emotional and mental factors involved in the clinging was typically characteristic of the loss of spirituality and of the heavy material psychological atmosphere of Atlantis in its decay.
The earliest Egyptians, who first colonized the beginnings of the geologic formation of the delta of the Nile, were immigrants from the remnant of the Atlantic continent of which Plato speaks and which has been called Poseidonis; while the later Egyptians were formed from a series of colonizing waves from what is now southern India and possibly Ceylon. Ceylon itself, called Lanka in the archaic Sanskrit writings, was ages ago the northernmost headland of the great island contemporaneous in its own heyday with the efflorescence of Atlantean civilization; and although this great island had, at the time of the last colonizing waves reaching Egypt from it, already largely sunken beneath the waves, this fact likewise shows that these later immigrants from the East into the Egyptian delta were themselves late Atlanteans of Oriental stock, but who had by then become integral portions of the rising "Aryan" or what in modern theosophy is called the fifth root-race. Thus it is seen that the Egyptians were Atlanteans both in origin and in type of civilization; albeit their colonizing of Egypt, whether from West or East, took place at a time when Atlantis had already become a system of continents and islands of legendary history, and their inhabitants were already virtually "aryanized."
The great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, is a legendary record of an era when Lanka or Ceylon was still part of the great Atlantean island in the Pacific, inhabited by the late Atlanteans whom the Aryans of the north called Rakshasas, commonly translated as "demons" — a title descriptive of Atlantean wickedness rather than accurately giving the translation of the word. As the later Aryan race in its historical and legendary records eloquently testifies, the Atlanteans, even in those late days, were known as a race of magicians and even sorcerers, and knowledge of the postmortem destiny of man was as familiar in all its phases to the then initiated priests of that forgotten people as it was to both the early and later Egyptian priesthood. Just as the Atlanteans were spoken of as a race of sorcerers, evil and wicked, or as a race of magicians of questionable repute, so likewise did Egypt and its inhabitants bear among all the peoples inhabiting the border of the Mediterranean Sea the reputation of being a "land shadowing with wings" (Isaiah, xviii, 1), and their people as being a race of magicians — both good and bad.
Another writer in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, under the title "Metempsychosis," shows the usual modern ignorance of the real meaning of the teaching; he confuses metempsychosis with transmigration, and these again with reincarnation:
Metempsychosis, or Transmigration of the Soul, the doctrine that at death the soul passes into another living creature, man, animal, or even plant. . . .
Till full investigation of Egyptian records put us in possession of the facts, it was supposed that the Egyptians believed in metempsychosis, and Herodotus (xi. 123) explicitly credits them with it. We now know that he was wrong.
We know nothing of the sort. All that we do know is that modern scholars have not found references to this doctrine sculptured on the monuments or painted on the papyri.
The Jews also — a people whom one would perhaps not suspect of teaching a doctrine of reincarnation — taught it through the media of the doctrines which the Pharisees of ancient Judaea held. It is likewise taught in the Jewish Qabbalah, the most mystical and secret teaching of the Jews — interpolated and modified as the Qabbalah certainly has been by later and probably Christian hands. They even believed in the preexistence and reimbodiment of worlds as well as of human souls, precisely as some at least of the most eminent of the early Christian Fathers did, as for instance Clement of Alexandria and Origen. They also taught, as did Plato, that the consciousness and knowledge of man in any one life are but reminiscences of the consciousness and the knowledge of former lives.
The New Testament is on the whole unjust to the ancient Jewish Pharisees in its various accusations and strictures, more often by hint than otherwise; so that the reader of the New Testament has a distorted idea as to who and what the Pharisees were. There were, as in all classes of society, great and good men among them; they were not all hypocrites, nor were they always lazy sectarians living upon a trusting populace that followed their lead more or less blindly; although it is true that, being the most numerous and the most vocal and positive in statement of all the three sects as Josephus describes them, it is obvious that their influence in Palestine, or at least among the people of Jerusalem, was great and profound.
Josephus, one of the greatest of Jewish historians, was himself a convinced Pharisee in his religious convictions. Born at Jerusalem in the year 37 of the Christian era, he was of princely Jewish origin on his mother's side, and from his father, Matthias, he had inherited the priestly office and function at Jerusalem. He became involved in the struggles of the Jews against the Roman power, and as one of the generals of the Jews saw service against the invading Roman arms. His life was spared by Vespasian and he won the favor of this great Roman emperor. He wrote a number of books, of which The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews furnish two of the most important sources from which modern historians draw information of the time in which Josephus lived. That his books contain interpolations is true.
Josephus tells us that the Pharisees were believers in reincarnation; in fact he has several long passages dealing with the metempsychosal reincarnational beliefs of the Jews of his time. He tells us that in his day in the first century of the Christian era, the Jews had three sects, which he enumerates as follows: first, the Pharisees, the most numerous and powerful, and the most widely held in public estimation; second, the Essenes, a mystical body of limited number, who followed a monastic course of life; and third, the Sadducees, also of limited number, not so much a sect as a body of free-thinkers, who opposed much of what was taught by the Pharisees, and who apparently proclaimed themselves as being the true depositaries of ancient Jewish thought of a Mosaic character.
In The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes:
As for the Pharisees, they live simply, and despise delicacies, and follow the guidance of reason, as to what it prescribes to them as good, and think they ought earnestly to strive to observe its dictates. They also pay respect to such as are in years; nor are they so bold as to contradict them in anything which they have introduced. And when they say that all things happen by fate, they do not take away from men the freedom of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it has pleased God to mix up the decrees of fate and man's will, so that man can act virtuously or viciously. They also believe, that souls have an immortal power in them, and that there will be under the earth rewards or punishments, according as men have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter souls are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former will have power to live again. On account of these doctrines they have very great influence with the people, and whatever they do about divine worship, or prayers, or sacrifices, they perform according to their direction. Such great testimony do the cities bear them on account of their constant practice of virtue, both in the actions of their lives, and in their conversation.
But the doctrine of the Sadducees is that souls die with the bodies; nor do they pretend to regard anything but what the law enjoins on them; for they think it virtue to dispute with the teachers of the philosophy which they follow, and their views are received by only a few, but those are of the highest rank. But they are able to do hardly anything so to speak, for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to do, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the people would not otherwise put up with them. — Bk. XVIII, ch. i, 3-4
The reference here to one portion of human souls as being detained because of vicious living in an "everlasting prison," which could be better translated as aeon-long punitional purgation, is the same thought that is found in all other countries of ancient times dealing with souls addicted to vice; whereas the reference to the class of souls living virtuously is that they will have "power to live again," which is the doctrine of reimbodiment. Josephus states it more clearly in The Jewish War:
As to the two other sects first mentioned, the Pharisees are esteemed most skilful in the exact interpretation of their laws, and are the first sect. They ascribe all things to fate and God, and yet allow that to do what is right or the contrary is principally in men's own power, although fate co-operates in every action. They think also that all souls are immortal, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, while the souls of bad men are punished with eternal punishment. But the Sadducees, the second sect, take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not the cause of our doing or not doing what is bad, and they say that to do what is good or bad lies in men's own choice, and that the one or the other so belongs to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away belief in the immortality of the soul, and in punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and cultivate concord for the general utility, but the behaviour of the Sadducees to one another is rather rude, and their intercourse with those of their own party is as bearish as if they were strangers to them. — Bk. II, ch. viii, 14
And finally, in the address by Josephus to the mutinous soldiers under his command during their fighting against the Roman troops under Vespasian, when they were contemplating suicide both for himself and themselves as preferable to surrendering to the Roman arms, he said:
What are we afraid of that we will not go up to the Romans? Is it death? If so, shall we inflict on ourselves for certain what we are afraid of, when we but suspect our enemies will inflict it on us? But some one will say that we fear slavery. Are we then altogether free at present? It may also be said that it is a manly act to kill oneself. No, certainly, but a most unmanly one. . . . Indeed suicide is unknown to the common nature of all animals, and is impiety to God our Creator. For no animal dies by its own contrivance, or by its own means. For the desire of life is a strong law of nature with all. . . . And do you not think that God is very angry when a man despises what he has bestowed on him? For it is from him that we have received our being, and we ought to leave it to his disposal to take that being away from us. The bodies of all men are indeed mortal, and created out of corruptible matter; but the soul is ever immortal, and is a part of God that inhabits our bodies. Besides, if any one destroys or misuses deposit he has received from a mere man, he is esteemed a wicked and perfidious person; and if any one cast out of his own body the deposit of God, can we imagine that he who is thereby affronted does not know of it? . . . Do not you know that those who depart out of this life according to the law of nature, and pay the debt which was received from God, when he that lent it us is pleased to require it back again, enjoy eternal fame; that their houses and posterity are sure, and that their souls are pure and obedient, and obtain the most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the revolution of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies; while the souls of those whose hands have acted madly against themselves, are received in the darkest place in Hades, and God, who is their father, punishes those that offend against either soul or body in their posterity. — Bk III, ch. viii, par. 5
There is here no argument about a doctrine which the orator lugs awkwardly into his discourse as being something foreign and new, in other words, a religious and philosophical novelty; but in each case the reference to the assumption of new bodies is made as being commonplace to his readers, and hence as being part of the psychology in which they lived. It is obvious that had the doctrines been unorthodox or strange they would not have been introduced at all, because weakening to his argument.
Philo Judaeus, the great Platonizing Jewish philosopher, whose writings exercised a tremendous influence over not only Jewish thought, but likewise on the beginnings of the Christian theology, speaks strongly in favor of that particular form of metempsychosal reincarnation which had close links of similarity with parallel ideas held by Plato, his Greek predecessor, and in fact his philosophical model.
Philo, who lived during the first century of the Christian era, was an Alexandrian by birth, and was largely affected by the syncretistic spirit of Alexandrian philosophy and metaphysic. The entire purpose of his writings was to show the common grounds of mystical and theological thinking that, according to him, existed between the Platonic doctrines and the sacred books of the Jews. It has been commonly said of him by modern scholars that he held the idea that Plato drew the bulk of his ideas from the Hebrew lawgiver, Moses: although one could argue with equal grounds of probability, that Philo in his heart believed that there existed a common archaic wisdom-religion, of which Moses and Plato were exponents and teachers, each in his own way; and that in Philo's desire to bring the Jewish sacred writings to the favorable attention of the Greeks, he devoted himself to proving the similarities which he found in the writings of both Plato and Moses.
Philo's argument is that the Logos or divine spirit, working in and through humanity, infused common ideas into human minds irrespective of race or time-period; and also he seems to argue in places that such great men as Plato, and those who promulgated "the wisdom of the Greeks," derived what natural truth they possessed from inspiration having its origin in the Jewish scriptures. This idea is preposterous, and was an attitude probably adopted by Philo in order to render his literary work more acceptable to men of his own race and religion.
He succeeded in proving that in all probability the Jews derived their wisdom from the same archaic source, from which the other nations surrounding the Jewish people likewise drew their inspiration, such as the Greek philosophers of different periods, the Egyptians, the peoples of the Euphrates and Tigris, not to mention the great philosophical peoples in the Far East. It is almost a certainty that the influence exerted by Hindu thought had been operative on the peoples to the west for ages, and had been slowly permeating Mesopotamian, Syrian, as well as Egyptian and Greek speculations for an equal length of time. This Indian influence became clearly perceptible during the time when Philo lived, and probably had been silently at work for centuries before. Alexandria was a real metaphysical alembic of religious and philosophical ideas, and no competent scholar today doubts that Oriental influence, whether of Brahmanic or Buddhistic character, colored Alexandrian thought.
Philo, in setting forth his particular form of the teaching of metempsychosal reincarnation, speaks of the various kinds of "souls" which infill the universe, and of the celestial bodies as being animate entities, quite in common with the general teaching of antiquity, a doctrine which likewise was accepted by many if not most of the early Christians as is evidenced by the writings of Clement of Alexandria and of Origen.
In his tract, On the Doctrine that Dreams are Sent from God, Philo quotes the passage in Genesis (28:12) in which is mentioned the cosmic ladder of life reaching from earth to heaven, and of the angels of God ascending and descending along it, and comments upon the matter as follows:
By the ladder in this thing, which is called the world, is figuratively understood the air, the foundation of which is the earth, and the head is the heaven; for the large interior space, which being extended in every direction, reaches from the orb of the moon, which is described as the most remote of the order in heaven, but the nearest to us by those who contemplate sublime objects, down to the earth, which is the lowest of such bodies, is the air. The air is the abode of incorporeal souls, since it seemed good to the Creator of the universe to fill all the parts of the world with living creatures. On this account he prepared the terrestrial animals for the earth, the aquatic animals for the sea and for the rivers, and the stars for the heaven; for every one of these bodies is not merely a living animal, but is also properly described as the very purest and most universal mind extending through the universe; so that there are living creatures in that other section of the universe, the air.
. . . For not only is it not alone deserted by all things besides, but rather, like a populous city, it is full of imperishable and immortal citizens, souls equal in number to the stars.
Now of these souls some descend upon the earth with a view to being bound up in mortal bodies, those namely which are most nearly connected with the earth, and which are lovers of the body. But some soar upwards, being again distinguished according to the definitions and times which have been appointed by nature. Of these, those which are influenced by a desire for mortal life, and which have been familiarised to it, again return to it. But others, condemning the body of great folly and trifling, have pronounced it a prison and a grave, and, flying from it as from a house of correction or a tomb, have raised themselves aloft on light wings towards the aether, and have devoted their whole lives to sublime speculations. . . .
Very admirably therefore does Moses represent the air under the figurative symbol of a ladder, as planted solidly in the earth and reaching up to heaven. — The Works of Philo Judaeus, Vol. II, Bk. I, xxii
There are a number of other passages in the voluminous writings of Philo Judaeus, which have direct reference to the general doctrine of reimbodiment. We have here the same atmosphere of familiarity with the doctrine of reimbodiment which called for no particular elucidation, but which is mentioned as being a teaching familiar to his readers, and therefore requiring no explanatory comment.
It is one of the tragedies of spiritual and psychological history that the general doctrine of reimbodiment virtually passed out of the consciousness of European man after the disappearance of the last faint gleams of ancient wisdom, in the sixth century of the Christian Era, when the sole surviving Mystery school in the Mediterranean countries was closed by imperial rescript of the Emperor Justinian — very likely due to the petition of the few remaining survivors of the Neoplatonic stream of thought. This was when the seven Greek philosophers whose school was thus closed at Athens fled for protection and for the free practice of their philosophic beliefs to the court of the Persian king Khosru Nushirwan I. They were later allowed, by the treaty which Khosru forced upon the Emperor Justinian, to return and live in peace in the Roman Empire without being subject to the then prevailing laws of the Roman Empire particularly directed against "pagans."
One may well pause to reflect how different might have been religious history in European countries had the doctrine of reimbodiment become part of the theological system of Christendom. There were, it is true, rare individuals during medieval times who held the doctrine more or less secretly. One is reminded of some of the bodies of mystical Christians who later became the victims of an intolerant and often bloody persecution, such as the Albigenses, the Cathari, and the Bogomils. With the renaissance of freedom in human thought and investigation, the doctrine, under one or another of its various forms, in time became familiar to scholars, largely due to a more accurate acquaintance with the philosophic and religious literatures of Greece and Rome which the downfall of Constantinople, and its capture by the Turks in 1453, and the consequent diffusion in Europe of the many ancient literary works of the Byzantine libraries, brought about. Among literate and thoughtful circles today reincarnation is now tacitly accepted; many eminent men show unmistakable traces of having been affected by the influence which the doctrine has had upon their minds — consciously or unconsciously, and whether they openly acknowledge the fact or not.
Although the Christian religion today does not teach it, and for centuries past has not taught it, it is true that in our own times a few Christian divines do believe in it, and in a few cases are beginning to teach it again in a modified form. Possibly this doctrine was originally lost sight of and vanished from the books which became the foundations of Christian theology, including those which imbody the teaching of the later Church Fathers, because of the fact that the doctrine of reimbodiment had at an early period of the Christian era come into conflict with the already rapidly spreading religious views as to the human soul's being created by God almighty at some indefinite moment at or before physical birth.
Among the earliest Christians, however, a form of metempsychosal reincarnation was actually taught, as well as a more or less clearly stated doctrine of the soul's preexistence from eternity. The greatest of the Christian spokesmen of this early theological school was Origen of Alexandria. Most of the references to early Christian metempsychosal belief in Origen's writings are to be found in his work On First Principles. It is unfortunate for the student of early Christian beliefs, many of which are no longer accepted, that we do not possess a full text of his original Greek work, and that our knowledge of what that great Church Father wrote is mainly derived from a translation into Latin of On First Principles, made in later times by Tyrannius Rufinus, of Aquileia, who was born about 345 of the Christian era and died 410, and who was, therefore, a contemporary of the "orthodox" Father Jerome.
Rufinus took great liberties with Origen's original Greek text, and modern Christian scholars recognize this; so much so, that it is impossible to exculpate him from the charge of mutilation of Origen's text, and even possibly of interpolative forgery in the sense of including in his Latin translation, and ascribing them to Origen, certain ideas which probably came from Rufinus's own mind. This literary dishonesty of Rufinus, however, he was not alone in possessing, even in regard to Origen's work, because Rufinus himself tells us in his Prologue to On First Principles, that he merely acted as others did in times before himself:
And therefore, that I might not find you too grievous an exactor, I gave way, even contrary to my resolution; on the condition and arrangement, however, that in my translation I should follow as far as possible the rule observed by my predecessors, and especially by that distinguished man whom I have mentioned above, who, after translating into Latin more than seventy of those treatises of Origen which are styled Homilies, and a considerable number also of his writings on the apostles, in which a good many "stumbling-blocks" are found in the original Greek, so smoothed and corrected them in his translation, that a Latin reader would meet with nothing which could appear discordant with our belief. His example, therefore, we follow, to the best of our ability; if not with equal power of eloquence, yet at least with the same strictness of rule, taking care not to reproduce those expressions occurring in the works of Origen which are inconsistent with and opposed to each other. — p. xii
Why Rufinus and those others he speaks of should have set themselves up as judges of Origen's Christianity, the reader may himself easily understand. There is little doubt therefore that had we the full and original Greek text of Origen's On First Principles, and remembering how even what remained of Origen's teachings became the cause of a widespread polemical agitation in the Christian church, and having in mind Origen's final condemnation at the Home Synod under Mennas, we should probably find that he was far more explicit in his teachings of the particular kind of metempsychosal reincarnation which he favored, than appears in the mutilated and interpolated texts that have reached us. But even these are amply sufficient to show how far this Alexandrian Greek theologian went in his approval and public teaching of some form of metempsychosal reincarnation.
So thoroughly, in times preceding the sixth century of the Christian era, had Origen's ideas penetrated into the fabric of Christian theological thought, that it is small wonder the growing religious materialism of the times took alarm at the differences in doctrine which Origen's teachings then showed as compared with the established dogmas of Christian faith. Although this double condemnation of the Origenistic doctrines succeeded in finally killing the spirit of his teachings, it succeeded in doing so only after a great deal of polemical quarreling and the airing of better divergences of theological opinion. As a matter of fact, a certain amount of the Origenistic thought survived until late ages in the Christian church, as evidenced by the views prevalent in European countries as late as the fourteenth century.
One might add that at the time when the doctrines of Origen were formally condemned at Constantinople, the teachings of the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite were rapidly making their way into orthodox favor. These teachings were mystical in type and of indubitably pagan origin, being largely based on Neoplatonic and Neopythagorean theology, but less directly so than were Origen's views.
Now which were those early Christian sects that taught reimbodiment in some form or other? There were the Manichaeans preeminently, although it is questionable whether the Manichaean teachings may properly be called Christian. While some modern Christian theologians and historians call them a Christian sect because they had adopted some few of the Christian notions — possibly from motives of personal safety or possibly the more successfully to guard their true beliefs — fundamentally the Manichaeans were not Christians, though their doctrines were widespread and popular at that time in the history of the early Christians.
Again, there were the many Gnostic sects, some of which differed widely indeed, and often very favorably, from Christian theology and life. Furthermore, there were some sects, such as the Prae-existants (believers in the existence of the human soul before birth, and in a form of reincarnation), who were distinctly Christian, accepting Christian theology in most of its points. This sect likewise had in the earliest centuries of the Christian era no insignificant influence on the thought of the time.
It may be of interest to quote examples of Origen's manner of treating metempsychosal reincarnation and preexistence. The first is from a fragment of the original Greek text which is extant:
so the one nature of every soul being in the hands of God, and, so to speak, there being but one lump of reasonable beings, certain causes of more ancient date led to some beings being created [made] vessels unto honour, and others vessels unto dishonour. — On First Principles, Bk. III, ch. i, 21
The phrase in the above extract "certain causes of more ancient date" is a clear reference to the preexistent life or lives of the soul-entities who later, following inherent karmic causes, became, some, "vessels unto honor," and others, "vessels unto dishonor."
Again, and from the original Greek as found a little farther on in the text:
as, on the other hand, it is possible that he who, owing to causes more ancient than the present life, was here a vessel of dishonour, may after reformation become . . . etc.
Still more clearly does Origen speak in a later chapter as follows:
those who maintain that everything in the world is under the administration of divine providence (as is also our own belief), can, as it appears to me, give no other answer, so as to show that no shadow of injustice rests upon the divine government, than by holding that there were certain causes of prior existence, in consequence of which the souls, before their birth in the body, contracted a certain amount of guilt in their sensitive nature, or in their movements, on account of which they have been judged worthy by Divine Providence of being placed in this condition. — Ibid., Bk. III, ch. iii, 5
These last two citations from Origen are taken from Rufinus' Latin translation; and only the immortal know how guilty Rufinus may have been of mutilating or softening the text!
Again quoting from Rufinus' translation:
rational creatures had also a similar beginning. And if they had a beginning such as the end for which they hope, they existed undoubtedly from the very beginning in those [ages] which are not seen, and are eternal. And if this is so, then there has been a descent from a higher to a lower condition, on the part not only of those souls who have deserved the change by the variety of their movements, but also on that of those who, in order to serve the whole world, were brought down from those higher and invisible spheres to these lower and visible ones. . . . — Bk. III, ch. v, 4
In connection with Origen's doctrine of the preexistence of the hierarchies of different souls, it is interesting to note that he likewise taught the preexistence and consequent reimbodiment of worlds — still another remnant of the archaic wisdom-religion. We find Origen saying on this very point:
But we can give a logical answer in accordance with the standard of religion, when we say that not then for the first time did God begin to work when He made this visible world; but as, after its destruction, there will be another world, so also we believe that others existed before the present came into being. And both of these positions will be confirmed by the authority of holy Scripture. — Ibid., Bk. III, ch. v, 3
Here there is obviously a distinct statement of the teaching of reincarnation, as even understood today, and it is futile to argue that Origen's teaching embraces a bare preexistence in the spiritual realms without any repetitive incarnations on earth in human bodies. His last words run directly in line with the doctrine of reincarnation.
Origen, like most of the better class of the philosophers of ancient times does not teach that popular misunderstanding of metempsychosal reincarnation which in our own days is called transmigration of the souls of human beings into the bodies of beasts. His opinion on this matter is clearly set forth:
We think that those views are by no means to be admitted, which some are wont unnecessarily to advance and maintain, viz. that souls descend to such a pitch of abasement that they forget their rational nature and dignity, and sink into the condition of irrational animals, either large or small;. . . . All of which assertions we not only do not receive, but, as being contrary to our belief, we refute and reject. — Ibid., Bk. I, ch. viii, 4
Celsus, a pagan philosopher, had written forcibly and ably against the new Christian faith, basing his objections on the ground of a lack of an adequate philosophy therein, and also on the fact that, as he then truly stated, there was very little in it of worth which was new, and that all of its best had been anticipated in the various pagan beliefs. In writing against Celsus, Origen again argues strongly against the misunderstood transmigration theory:
a view which goes far beyond the mythical doctrine of transmigration, according to which the soul falls down from the summit of heaven, and enters into the body of brute beasts, both tame and savage! — Against Celsus, Bk. I, ch. xx
Here it is abundantly clear that Origen, in common with all theosophists through the ages, rejects the mistaken teaching, which popular fancy in all lands has derived from the true doctrine of reimbodiment, that rational human souls ever can or ever do enter into the bodies of beasts. This mistaken conception of the real facts of reimbodiment arose from confusing the doctrines that refer to the transmigrations of the human life-atoms with the migrating adventures of the human monad in its peregrinations through the spheres.
Also the mistake was partly based on a misapprehension of a secondary teaching of the Esoteric Philosophy concerning the dread destiny that not infrequently befalls the kamarupa of men who were while on earth exceedingly gross and material in propensities. Such earthbound and heavily material kamarupa phantoms, from which the human monad has fled, are at times drawn by psychomagnetic attraction and gross thirst for material existence into the bodies of those beasts or even plants with which they have affinity.
Again, Origen repeats his condemnation of transmigration as popularly misunderstood in the following words:
Nay, if we should cure those who have fallen into the folly of believing in the transmigration of souls through the teaching of physicians, who will have it that the rational nature descends sometimes into all kinds of irrational animals, and sometimes into that state of being which is incapable of using the imagination . . . etc. — Ibid., Bk. III, ch. lxxv
Our teaching on the subject of the resurrection is not, as Celsus imagines, derived from anything that we have heard on the doctrine of metempsychosis; but we know that the soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place, without having a body suited to the nature of that place. Accordingly, it at one time puts off one body which was necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second; and at another time it assumes another in addition to the former, which is needed as a better covering, suited to the purer ethereal regions of heaven. — Ibid., Bk. VII, ch. xxxii
Here Origen voices in his vaguely Christian phraseology other teachings of the archaic wisdom-religion: the peregrination of the monadic entity through the spheres, a teaching which will be discussed later.
Again in the same work, he speaks very cautiously during the course of an argument on whether it be right or wrong to eat flesh-food:
We do not believe that souls pass from one body to another, and that they may descend so low as to enter the bodies of the brutes. If we abstain at times from eating the flesh of animals, it is evidently, therefore . . . etc. — Ibid., Bk. VIII, ch. xxx
This last extract on the surface may seem contrary to previous citations, and therefore opposed to reincarnation; but he means in the extract exactly what the ancient wisdom meant as the initiate philosophers taught it: that reincarnation is not the transference of the rational entity or reincarnating ego directly from one physical body to another physical body, with no intermediate stages of purgation or purification, and no intermediate principles between physical body and reincarnating ego.
Finally the following and distinctly Origenistic doctrine is found in Jerome's Letter to Avitus:
Nor is there any doubt that, after certain intervals of time, matter will again exist, and bodies be formed and a diversity be established in the world, on account of the varying wills of rational creatures, who, after [enjoying] their own subsistence down to the end of all things, have gradually fallen away to a lower condition. — Letter 124.11
In this extract is discerned a clear statement of the re-forming of worlds and their re-peopling with beings, strictly in accordance with Origen's teaching.
Another early Greek Church father, living in the second and third centuries, was the renowned Clement of Alexandria, often spoken of under the Latin form of his name, Clemens Alexandrinus. Both he and Origen have been highly respected and frequently consulted by theologians in all ages since their day, and this despite the official condemnation of the so-called Origenistic heresies at Constantinople in the sixth century. In Clement's Exhortation to the Heathen, he says:
man, who is an entity composite of body and soul, a universe in miniature. — ch. i
Here we find a duly canonized saint of the Christian Church uttering a typically theosophical teaching — "Man is a microcosm of the Macrocosm" — in other words, the individual contains in himself not only everything that the universal Whole contains, thus being a "universe in miniature," but is by that fact an integral portion of the cosmic continuum.
Whether, then, the Phrygians are shown to be the most ancient people by the goats of the fable; or, on the other hand, the Arcadians by the poets, who describe them as older than the moon; or, finally, the Egyptians by those who dream that this land first gave birth to gods and men: yet none of these at least existed before the world. But before the foundation of the world were we, who, because destined to be in Him, pre-existed in the eye of God before, — we the rational creatures of the Word [Logos] of God, on whose account we date from the beginning; for "in the beginning was the Word" [Logos]. Well, inasmuch as the Word was from the first, He was and is the divine source of all things;. . . — Rev. Wm. Wilson trans.
The Prae-existants lasted, as a sect, at least until the third and fourth centuries, and there is no reason for believing that they did not last longer; but it is also certain that their influence dwindled steadily with the years and with the greater dissemination among the Mediterranean nations of the purely exoteric theological doctrines of the Christian exponents — to the great loss of spirituality in orthodox Christian theology. There were doubtless other early Christian bodies who held similar beliefs. These sects existed, in all probability, before most if not all of the books of the Christian New Testament were composed or written. Certainly there are passages in the New Testament which, read as they stand, are more than merely "dark sayings"; they are inexplicable by any orthodox Christian theory, and make sheer nonsense unless the idea in the mind of the writers was based upon some form of early Christian metempsychosal reincarnation which was more or less widely accepted, and hence could be imbodied in the New Testament writings, with the assurance that they would be understood.
The interview of Nicodemus with Jesus is an interesting if not conclusive case in point, and shows the general belief of the time, whether we accept the actual existence of Nicodemus or not. The point is that belief in some form of metempsychosal reincarnation was so widely diffused in Palestine that it was taken for granted by the writer that all would understand the allusions, and the questions therefore came very naturally from Nicodemus' mouth, in The Gospel according to John:
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. — 3:1-7
In this most interesting passage, which in actual fact refers to at least three different aspects of the wisdom-teaching, Nicodemus is called a Pharisee; and, as evidenced by the citations made from Josephus, the Pharisees at the beginning of the Christian era taught some form of the general doctrine of reimbodiment. Consequently, Nicodemus must have been probing for information of some particular kind; or, which seems much more likely, if such a conversation ever took place, the exchange of ideas has been either imperfectly reported or distorted by the writer of this gospel.
Modern critical scholarship has shown clearly enough that not a single one of the Christian gospels was written at the time when Jesus lived, and consequently this gospel is not from the hand of the apostle John, as in fact is evidenced by its common Greek ascription "according to" John.
There is another interesting passage in the same gospel as follows:
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? — 9:1-2
It is evident from this that even the disciples of Jesus had some clear doctrine of metempsychosal reincarnation in their minds, and of compensatory retribution for "sin" in a former life. If we are to take the statement in this gospel as a faithful report of an actual conversation, we are driven to suppose that Jesus' disciples themselves were Pharisees, or were under the influence of the teaching of that Jewish sect — which amounts to the same thing. It is to be noted that the answer of Jesus does not deny any previous earth-life of the blind man, but simply runs to the effect that this blind man did not sin nor did his parents, and the writer of the gospel makes Jesus reply in the rest of his answer quite in accordance with later Christian theological ideas. The point of importance is the indication here given of the popular acceptance in Palestine of one or another form of the doctrine of reimbodiment.
It is a virtual certainty, judging from the evidence which has descended to us in more-or-less mutilated form that from a period even before the second century the particular form which the doctrine of reimbodiment took among the early Christians was distinctly esoteric. This is not a supposition based merely upon the intrinsic evidence to be found in early Christian patristic literature, but is actually vouched for by at least one of the most orthodox of the early church Fathers, the Latin Father Jerome. He makes a specific statement in his Letter to Demetrias, that this doctrine was, as far as the early Christian sects of Egypt and of the Oriental parts of Hither Asia were concerned, a secret one, and not communicated to all and sundry.
Jerome's words themselves are so interesting that no apology is needed for repeating them here:
This impious and filthy doctrine spread itself in former times in Egypt and in the eastern parts; and, at the present time, is secretly, as it were in the holes of vipers, spreading among many, polluting the purity of those parts; and, like an hereditary disease, insinuates itself into the few in order that it may reach the majority. — Letter 130.16
Jerome also records the fact that more than one Christian sect taught some form of reincarnational metempsychosis. Writing to Demetrias, he again states that some form of metempsychosis or of reincarnation was then believed in and taught among some bodies of Christians but as an esoteric and traditional doctrine, and that it was communicated to a selected few only. He obviously did not believe in the doctrine himself and threw much mud at those who did; yet his statements stand as a record of fact.
Now Jerome lived in the second half of the fourth century — thus several hundred years after the alleged date of the birth of Jesus — and consequently, he wrote under the influence of the growing exotericisms and dogmatic theology which in his day was becoming steadily more crystallized in the form which it later assumed. His outlook upon the doctrine of reimbodiment is therefore easily understood, and accounts for the typically patristic and dogmatic way in which he writes of it. But it likewise proves that even so late as in the fourth century some form of metempsychosal reimbodiment was still held by certain Christian sects, although more or less secretly, doubtless because of fear of orthodox persecution.
There were a number of the later Church Fathers, all quite orthodox, who rivaled each other in finding terms of vituperation and scorn of what they did not at all understand, condemning the beliefs of fellow Christians of an earlier and purer age, and even of their own respective times — as late, indeed, as the year 540! Lactantius, for instance, who lived in the fourth century, fairly bubbles over with contempt for the ancient doctrine of reimbodiment.
Was the reticence which was shown in later centuries in regard to reimbodiment dictated by motives of worldly wisdom, arising out of the fear of persecution and reprisals by their fellow Christians? Or was it dictated by the very different motives which governed the public teaching of some form of reimbodiment in times preceding the Christian era? Perhaps a little of both. The principles of this doctrine are simple in themselves, but if one wishes to have an accurate and extensive knowledge of them, one must study and reflect deeply. It was an ancient custom, prevalent everywhere, that no one gives out all of the teachings of any science or art or philosophical system all at once, and especially not to those who have not previously prepared themselves by training and study properly and rightfully to receive them.
This was the spirit governing all initiatory rites used in the ancient Mystery schools, and to a certain extent this is so even among ourselves today. For instance, we do not permit a child to learn how to combine chemicals into explosives. Let the student first learn the elements of the study to which he sets himself; let him prepare himself first, both in mind and heart, not only for his own safety, but for that of his fellow men. Then he may receive the greater secrets, but even then only in proportion to the degree that he is prepared.
During the Middle Ages there existed certain bodies which taught a secret doctrine of reimbodiment, although the details of their beliefs are no longer discoverable; and these unfortunate bodies of heretics were rigorously sought out and persecuted for their beliefs by the long arm of the authorities, both ecclesiastical and civil. Such were the Cathari — meaning the "clean ones" because they believed in leading a clean life. These were also called the Albigenses, the Tisserands, the Albigeois, and by other names. Such again were the Bogomils in Bulgaria and Russia — this word being an old Slavonic term probably meaning "the elect of God." Their "crime" seems to have been that they loved more than the things of this world what they thought to be the things of God. Both these latter bodies of men, it is possible, kept alive some form of the general doctrine of reimbodiment that was much earlier taught in the formerly widespread and popular Manichaean system of beliefs.
Later still in Europe came Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a Neoplatonist born out of time. Van Helmont of Holland (1578-1644), the scientist and mystical philosopher, it is quite possible also believed in some form of reincarnation; and later still, Swedenborg (1688-1772) seems to have adopted the doctrine of soul reimbodiment in a form modeled after his own ideas.
In modern Germany, we find Goethe and Herder also teaching reincarnation, but as they understood it. So did Charles Bonnet, the Swiss-French biologist and philosopher; while Schopenhauer and Hume, though not teaching it, considered it to be a doctrine meriting the profoundest philosophical respect and study.
The celebrated writer and critic G. E. Lessing held the logical view that the progress of the human species, as also that of all other animate entities, was based on some form of metempsychosal reimbodiment. His view in certain respects approaches closely to an outline of what the theosophical teaching is with regard to reincarnation. Lessing wrote more openly than others who privately held the same view, and his procedure in argument was, shortly, as follows:
The spiritual soul is an uncompounded entity, intrinsically capable of infinite conceptions on account of its derivation in ultimate from an infinite source, the Kosmic Divine. But as it is in its manifestations only an entity of finite powers, it is not capable of containing infinite conceptions while in its finite states, but does obtain infinite conceptions by growth through an infinite succession of time, obtaining such experiences gradually. But obtaining them gradually, there must of necessity be order and degree by which these infinite conceptions are acquired. Such order and measure of learning are found in the percipient organs, commonly called the senses, inner especially but also outer, the real roots of which are in the naturally percipient soul; the physical senses are at present five only; but there is no sensible reason for supposing that the soul commenced with five senses only, or that it never will have more than five.
As it is certain that Nature never makes a leap in her growth, skipping intermediate steps, the soul therefore must have passed through all inferior stages to its present one, learning in all through an appropriate organ or appropriate organs; and because it is also certain that Nature comprises and contains many substances and powers which our present five senses cannot respond to and report back to the central consciousness on account of the imperfections of those five senses, we must recognise that there will be future stages of growth and development in which the soul will develop forth as many new senses as there are substances and powers of Nature.
In his little but noteworthy essay, discovered after his death, "That there can be more than five Senses for Man," he says:
This my system is unquestionably the most ancient of all systems of philosophy; for in reality it is no other than the system of the pre-existence and metempsychosis of the soul which occupied the minds of Pythagoras and Plato, and likewise before them of Egyptians, Chaldaeans, and Persians — in brief, of all the Sages of the East; and this fact alone ought to work strongly in its favor, for the first and most ancient belief is, in matters of theory, always the most probable, because common sense hit upon it immediately.
In The Education of the Human Race, Lessing otherwise writes on reincarnation as follows:
94. . . . But why should not every individual man have existed more than once upon this World?
95. Is this hypothesis so laughable merely because it is the oldest? Because the human understanding, before the sophistries of the Schools had dissipated and debilitated it lighted upon it at once?
96. Why may not even I have already performed those steps of my perfecting which bring to man only temporal punishments and rewards?
97. And once more, why not another time all those steps, to perform which the views of Eternal Rewards so powerfully assist us?
98. Why should I not come back as often as I am capable of acquiring fresh knowledge, fresh expertness? Do I bring away so much from once, that there is nothing to repay the trouble of coming back?
99. Is this a reason against? Or, because I forget that I have been here already? Happy is it for me that I do forget. The recollection of my former condition would permit me to make only a bad use of the present. And that which even I must forget now, is that necessarily forgotten for ever?
100. Or is it a reason against the hypothesis that so much time would have been lost to me? Lost? — And how much then should I miss? — Is not a whole Eternity mine? — F. W. Robertson, trans.
The American industrialist, Henry Ford, is a reincarnationist of the modern type, and openly voices the fact. The following is an extract from an interview on the subject that Mr. Ford gave some years ago to a well-known American journalist, Mr. George Sylvester Viereck:
I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty-six. . . .
Religion offered nothing to the point — at least, I was unable to discover it. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next.
When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan. I realized that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. There was time enough to plan and to create.
The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. I was settled. I felt that order and progress were present in the mystery of life. I no longer looked elsewhere for a solution to the riddle of life.
If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men's minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us.
We all retain, however faintly, memories of past lives. We frequently feel that we have witnessed a scene or lived through a moment in some previous existence. But that is not essential; it is the essence, the gist, the results of experience, that are valuable and remain with us. — The San Francisco Examiner, August 26, 1928
There are today strange misunderstandings or even distortions of this once universally-diffused teaching. The eminent research engineer and scientist, Matthew Luckiesh, wrote a few years ago:
Reincarnation of the soul has been dreamed of and desired by many peoples.
. . . After all these years we are still uncertain of the destiny of that intangible part of us — the soul or mind-entity. Can we suppress a smile when we admit that knowledge has proved reincarnation and practically eternal life for dead matter, but has revealed as yet no such proof for our so-called souls? We lie down at night and our minds rest in unconsciousness. The atoms in the textiles which cover us are as vibrant with life as those in our bodies. The electrons in the atoms continue revolving in their orbits and the molecules composed of atoms continue vibrating. These movements of these small elemental bodies go on whether we waken or die, and they go on doing this forever, barring some cataclysmic phenomenon which only exists in theory as yet. The irony of it! Knowledge has first proved the eternal life of matter. — "Men, Atoms, and Stars," Scientific American, June 1928
This is a curiously contradictory hypothesis! He believes that "matter is dead," yet in the same phrase he says that matter has "eternal life."
To continue the citation:
A so-called living thing dies; but its myriad atoms are as alive as ever. The particular organization of atoms represented by that dead body is mustered out. . . .
We can imagine many interesting migrations of matter during the course of which many reincarnations take place. . . .
For example, an atom of oxygen which we now breathe may have come to our Earth from afar in a meteor. Perhaps it was formed billions of years ago . . . in a stellar crucible — a far-off nebula. . . . The oxygen-atom was a part of a meteor [later] which traveled erratically for aeons. This piece of "drift-wood" of space eventually entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned. . . . The oxygen-atom came to the Earth in the ash-dust.
This may have been millions of years ago. The electrons rotated in the orbits of this atom all this time. The atoms became a part of a molecule of mineral salt. Eventually it passed . . . into a plant. . . . The atom may have become a part of a bacterium and eventually of an animal higher in the scale. . . . Now it is a part of a molecule of water. Again it has a devious journey and many reincarnations. . . . This is the merest glimpse of its eternal life — unchanged although reincarnated countless times.
Speaking with accuracy, it is best to describe all the peregrinations of a migrating atom or electron as being reimbodiments, and to reserve the term reincarnation for those particular vehicles of flesh which the monad assumes in its repetitive incarnations.
He speaks of these atoms as being forever physically alive. Now this is a very sweeping statement to make, for it is almost a physical certainty, according to the teachings of chemical physics, that the atoms themselves have a definite life-term, and therefore have both a beginning and an ending. The Esoteric Philosophy asserts that such a beginning is but one unit or link in an endless chain of such atomic reimbodiments; for not only atoms are reimbodied, but likewise celestial bodies, solar systems and galaxies, and so forth.
He next says that the atom of oxygen had its electrons rotating within it for billions of years, and that these electronic rotations have been pursuing their respective orbital paths "unchanged" for all that period of time. Now an atom billions of years old is a very ancient atom indeed. How can any atom live "unchanged" for that length of time? We know of nothing whatsoever in nature which endures "unchanged" through eternity: which does not have its beginning, reach maturity, and finally decay and die — only to come back, to reimbody itself. When this evolutionary period concerns the human soul, it is called reincarnation; when it is one of the migrations of the life-atoms, or even of the chemical atoms, we call it the reimbodiment or the transmigration of those life-atoms.
Casting then our eye over the annals of history, we see that the nearer we come to our own times, the more clearly do we discern that the doctrine of reimbodiment became more and more distorted; while, on the other hand, the farther back in time we trace its history, the more accurately was the teaching taught and the more widely was it disseminated over the globe. In those olden times, men really understood this noble doctrine. They knew that a lifetime's study of it would not exhaust its immense content, and they knew also how great were the wisdom and consolation that flowed forth into their minds and hearts from earnest and continuous study of it. It was the most effective explanation of the riddles and often heartrending inequalities in human life; a doctrine of boundless hope, for its import and significance dealt not only with the karmic past but reached into the illimitable fields of the future.
As an example of the manner in which the teaching of reimbodiment was given and understood in ancient times, the following brief summary of the part it played in ancient Orphic thought may be instructive. Orpheus was one of the greatest and most revered of the archaic Greek philosophers; and he is supposed to have belonged to what they call the "mythic age" of Greece. According to one line of legendary lore, he was the main founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Spirit and body are united by a bond unequally strong as between the two: the spirit is divine in essence, immortal, and yearns for its native freedom, while the body holds it temporarily enchained. Death dissolves this bond, but only temporarily, because the wheel of rebirth revolves constantly, bringing the spirit-soul back into incarnation in due course of time. Thus does the spirit-soul continue its cosmic journey between periods of spiritual and free existence and fresh incarnations around the long circle of Necessity. To these imprisoned entities does Orpheus teach the message of liberation, calling them back to the divine by a strong holy living and by self-purification: the purer the life, the higher the next incarnation, until the spirit-soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny, thereafter to live in full freedom as a divine entity in the bosom of the divine itself, but now fully self-conscious.
It might have been added in this sketch of the archaic Orphic system that the spirit-soul which has thus finished its career for that particular cosmic universe, is then become a fully self-conscious participant in the cosmic work of the still larger and enclosing universe; and it remains a fully developed divinity until a new period of manifestation of the cosmic life begins. Then and there, from within as well as from without, it is impulsed again to issue forth — as it has done uncounted times before, but as a beginner now at the bottom of this new manvantaric evolutionary scale — and to undertake a new journey in still more universal fields.