The Theosophical Forum – September 1941

REINCARNATION THROUGH THE AGES — Stanley Zurek

Reincarnation through the ages?" some sympathetic friend may query in surprise. "Yes," we reply, "through the ages." "But, how strange," our friend may continue, "I was always under the impression that the doctrine of reincarnation was a comparatively new teaching, introduced, I believe, by the Theosophists towards the end of the last century." "And so it was," we reply, "precisely. However not so much introduced as re-introduced, by the Theosophists of the last century."

And so, Friends, for the benefit of this hypothetical friend of ours, and of others who may be interested in this sublime teaching of the ages, we shall endeavor to present this afternoon a brief outline of the doctrine of reincarnation as it existed in the religions, philosophies, and literatures of various nations down the ages. And as the subject is a vast one, we must of necessity, limit ourselves to a few examples only, and have therefore chosen to present today some of the recorded instances of this teaching in a few specific nations only, such as India, Greece and Rome, Britain, and the United States.

But before proceeding with our presentation of these recorded examples, it might be wise to present an outline of the teaching itself for the benefit of those to whom the doctrine may be new or comparatively so.

REINCARNATION EXPLAINED

Briefly, the doctrine of reincarnation is the teaching that man is reborn on earth again after the change called death — and not once only, but many times. Why? it may be asked. For the simple reason that one life on earth is not sufficient to make of the imperfect man which we are at present, the Perfect Man which Nature demands.

Why is it that even in our ordinary every-day life there are such great discrepancies in character, ability, opportunities, and even physical appearance among individuals? Why should one individual be born with a silver spoon in his mouth and another with an empty tin cup, so to say? Why should one be blessed with a strong, healthy and beautiful body and another come into the world with some deformity or perhaps a frail body, soon to be disease-ridden? Theosophy answers: Karman, or the Law of Consequences, or Cause and Effect, which is the twin-doctrine of Reincarnation — one unable to exist or function without the other. As we sow, so shall we reap — no more, no less.

In other words, the discrepancies or differences are due to men themselves — the types of lives they led in former incarnations on earth strictly and invariably determining their present state. This is so obvious and fair an argument that anyone who will but analyse and think over the matter carefully cannot but see the justice of it.

THE DOCTRINE OF ANOTHER CHANCE

The teaching of reincarnation is likewise the doctrine of another chance. How cruel, how cold, and how totally unjust is the teaching of a single life only when compared with the doctrine of another chance! Under the one-life theory, man is relegated after death either to an eternal blessedness in heaven or an eternal damnation in hell. How unjust, we repeat; for could a man possibly, within the span of a single lifetime only, have merited an eternity of either supreme bliss or supreme suffering? How could he possibly have accomplished so much good or so much harm within a single life to merit an eternity of reward or an eternity of punishment after death?

Under the doctrine of another chance man is given an opportunity to correct mistakes committed in former lives. He is given an opportunity to redress wrongs done to his fellow-men and by them to him. He is given an opportunity to become a genius and master of his art, profession, or chosen calling. What a hope and comfort this doctrine would be to the thousands who long for distinction in their work and do not seem to achieve it, no matter how hard they labor! No effort, however, is lost, not even the smallest, so if we do not attain success in this life, there are other lives to come in which the effort expended in this life will give us just so much more talent or ability in our life-work. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a Beethoven, a Shakespeare, or a Gainsborough the product of a single lifetime only.

And finally, in concluding our brief explanation of the doctrine of reincarnation, we should like to quote the old Kabalistic aphorism: "A stone becomes a plant; a plant, a beast; a beast, a man; a man, a spirit; and a spirit, a god." In other words, the teaching is that the inner entity or soul in man has inhabited all the lower kingdoms in nature, starting with the invisible elemental forms of what are called the gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders, and, rising through the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms, finally reaching the stature of man. But is that the end? No. From the imperfect men of today we shall become the perfected men of tomorrow — geniuses, and not in one calling only, but in all branches of knowledge: in religion, philosophy, science and the arts — to what are called today the Mahatmans or Masters of Wisdom, and from them to still higher states of life and consciousness, unendingly.

And now we will proceed to our presentation of the recorded examples of the teaching of reincarnation in the nations chosen for our study this afternoon.

INDIA

We shall begin with India, called the cradle of civilization, where the doctrine of reincarnation is practically universally believed in in one form or another. In order to clear up a most erroneous misconception in connexion with the teaching of reincarnation, we shall deliberately begin with two passages from the Laws of Manu, which is an elaborate system of laws and duties, religious and civil, said to have been written many thousands of years ago, and followed by priests and laymen alike. In the chapter entitled, "On Transmigration and Final Beatitude." the moral consequences of various human acts are given in great detail, of which the following are examples:

For sinful acts mostly corporeal, a man shall assume after death a vegetable or mineral form; for such acts mostly verbal, the form of a bird or beast; for acts mostly mental, the lowest of human conditions.
A priest who has drunk spirituous liquor, shall migrate into the form of a smaller or larger worm or insect, or a moth, or of some ravenous animal.
"Why, how superstitious!" our friends may cry, and we quite agree with them, how superstitious indeed, if accepted literally, for Theosophy distinctly and unqualifiedly teaches that man does not reimbody himself in animals or other lower forms of life after death. "Once a man, always a man," is the rule, without any exceptions. Let us examine, however, what the main Founder of the Theosophical Society, Madame H. P. Blavatsky, has to say on this subject. In her article, "Transmigration of the Life-Atoms," she writes:

Now to the Hindu doctrine of Metempsychosis. It has a basis of truth; and, in fact it is an axiomatic truth, but only in reference to human atoms and emanations, and that not only after a man's death, but during the whole period of his life. The esoteric meaning of the Laws of Manu bears no reference to the human Ego, but only to the atoms of his body, his lower triad and his fluidic emanations. It is all very well for the Brahmans to distort, in their own interest, the real meaning contained in these laws, but the words quoted never meant what they were made to yield later on.

In other words, the doctrine is there, but in a distorted form, for the Laws of Manu having been undoubtedly tampered with, the teaching is carried to an entirely erroneous extreme by its literal interpretation.

We will next consider the Mahabharata, the great epic poem of India. The original is written in the Sanskrit language and is the world's greatest poem, containing some two hundred thousand lines! It consists of countless episodes, legends, and philosophical treatises, strung upon the thread of a single story and is historically based on the strife between the Aryan invaders of India and the original inhabitants. In India the reading of it is supposed to confer upon the happy reader every good and perfect gift.

One of the episodes of the Mahabharata, called the Bhagavad-Gita or Song Celestial, is studied and held in great esteem by all the sects in Hindusthan, except the Mohammedan, and is one of the best-loved of Theosophical devotional books, of which Mr. Judge has said that "It is the study of adepts." We are told that Ralph Waldo Emerson always had a copy on his desk. It consists of a dialog between Arjuna, prince of India, and his charioteer, the god Krishna, held in the open space between two opposing armies. The episode is allegorical, the god Krishna symbolizing man's Higher Self, his own Inner God. The doctrine of reincarnation is clearly stated in this work as the following passages will show.

Krishna speaking:

"Those great-souled ones who have attained to supreme perfection come unto me and no more incur rebirths rapidly revolving, which are mansions of pain and sorrow.

"Both I and thou have passed through many births, O harasser of thy foes! Mine are known unto me, but thou knowest not of thine.

"All worlds up to that of Brahman are subject to rebirth again and again, but they, O son of Kunti, who reach to me have no rebirth."

The last quotation is interesting as it bears out the Theosophical teaching that not only man but all beings below and above him are subject to rebirth.

We will now consider Buddhism, the religion based on the teachings of the greatest of the Oriental Spiritual Teachers. That reincarnation is taught in Buddhism is clearly evidenced by the famous Jataka Tales or Book of Birth-Stories, attributed to the Buddha himself, and which contains some five hundred and fifty or more stories describing the Buddha's past incarnations, from the lowest form of life to the highest attainable by man on earth. The author of Buddhism in Translations, Henry Clarke Warren, states that some of these tales are much-traveled ones, and are to be found in Aesop's Fables, and in La Fontaine and other European works.

GREECE

We now come to Greece — brilliant highly-polished Greece — who received her wonderful civilization from Egypt, and which Egypt, in turn received from India. Four great names occur to us at once: Homer, Pythagoras, Plato and Plutarch. We shall treat of two.

Pythagoras, the Sage of Samos, who established a colony and school at Crotona in Italy, was one of the great Initiates of ancient times, having spent twenty-two years of study in the Temples of Egypt and twelve years with the Magi in Babylon. Iamblichus in his Life of Pythagoras, gives clear evidence of his belief in reincarnation:

. . . he reminded many of his familiars, by most clear and evident indications, of the former life which their soul had lived, before it was bound to this body, and demonstrated by indubitable arguments, that he had been Euphorbus the son of Panthus, who conquered Patroclus.

And further:

Let this, therefore, be one specimen of his piety, which also we have before mentioned, that he knew what his soul was, and whence it came into the body, and also its former lives, and that of these things he gave most evident indications.

We next take the great Plato, of whom Emerson wrote that "out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought," and that "Mysticism finds in Plato all its texts." He taught reincarnation likewise. In the last book of his Republic occurs the famous "Vision of Er," which we will summarize.

Er, the Pamphylian, had been slain in battle, and on the tenth day, when the bodies were taken up, his was found unaffected by decay and he was sent away to be buried. And on the twelfth day, as he was lying on the funeral pile, he suddenly returned to life and related what he had seen in the other world.

He reported that when his soul had left his body, he had found himself, in company with a great many others, before two mysterious openings in the earth, and above them two other openings into the heaven above. Out of these openings were emerging souls from the underworld and heaven respectively, and the newly-arrived souls from earth, after being sentenced by the judges, entered the openings leading to the place they deserved.

Er was told that for every wrong committed on earth, the soul had to suffer ten times over — that is, once in every hundred years — and likewise was it rewarded in the same proportion.

In company with the spirits, he finally arrived at a rainbow-colored column of light, piercing the sky and earth, where a prophet, having distributed lots among the spirits, instructed them to choose their coming lives on earth. The spectacle was sad and laughable and strange, for the choice of most souls was based on their experience of a previous life. The soul of what had once been Orpheus, chose the life of a swan, out of enmity to the race of women, hating to be born of a woman, as they had been his murderers. And Odysseus, whose lot happened to be last, spent a great deal of time looking for the life of a private man with no cares — and he had difficulty in finding this as it was lying about and had been neglected by everyone else. Then, after drinking of the River of Unmindfulness — that is, all the spirits with the exception of Er — which drinking made them forget all their past experiences, they were driven upwards in a thunder-storm and earthquake to birth on earth again.

Plato's description of the souls choosing their next lives on earth is quite in keeping with the Theosophical teaching which states that the Reincarnating Ego chooses just the life best suited to work out certain Karman or set of consequences engendered in former lives.

His allusion to Orpheus, a great Teacher of Greece, as passing into the form of a swan, is no doubt allegorical, we are told, as the swan is the Hindu symbol of the immortal spirit, and signifies, therefore, that Orpheus had passed into the spiritual life, having reached the end of mortal existence. Plato, in common with all initiates, of whatever land or time, was compelled to use symbol and allegory in presenting deep teachings to the public, which was not prepared to receive the truth outright.

In his Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and IXth book of the Laws are to be found other references to reincarnation.

ROME

Coming now to Rome, the name of the immortal Vergil comes at once to mind — Vergil, of whom Tennyson writes:

I salute thee, Mantovano,
     I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
     Ever moulded by the lips of man.

While on the subject of poets, we might say here that in ancient times the poets were the Teachers of men — as Horace, a contemporary of Vergil, says: "Poets the first instructors of mankind," — and they employed verse instead of prose in their instruction. Dr. de Purucker tells us that the original metre or tempo of the ancient poetry placed the mind in a rhythmic condition which was conducive to a better understanding of the teachings.

In the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, which took Vergil eleven years to write, and which he did not consider complete when he died, the doctrine of reincarnation holds an important place. In the sixth book, Aeneas descends into the underworld to converse with his father, Anchises, in the Fields of Elysium, which lay beyond the realms of punishment. While there, his father told him that the souls that visited the underworld were punished according to their deserts, and then sent into Elysium. Then after they had become cleansed of all their impurities, and after drinking of the River of Lethe, which made them forget their memories of the past, they again were reborn on earth in another form. In a crowd which passed them, Anchises pointed out to Aeneas, and to the priestess who helped him descend into the underworld, the men who would make his race famous in Italy. First of all there was his son Silvius — not yet born — and then Lavinia, his Italian wife-to-be; then Romulus, the founder of Rome; and then, greatest of all, the long foretold Augustus Caesar, who would restore the Golden Age.

Another great figure in Roman history was the great sage Apollonius of Tyana, who was born about the same time as Jesus Christ, and who possessed miraculous powers of healing and prophecy and was a friend and adviser to kings.

Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, records the fact that when Apollonius visited India, he was told by the Brahman sage, Iarchas, upon asking him his opinion of the soul, that it was "the same as was delivered by Pythagoras to you, and by us to the Egyptians." Apollonius also related to Iarchas that he, Apollonius, in a previous incarnation had been an Egyptian steersman who had refused the inducements offered him by pirates to guide his ship into their hands.

BRITAIN

Coming now to Britain, we are told by E. D. Walker, the author of Reincarnation: A Study of Forgotten Truth, that the circle of reimbodiment was an essential principle of Druid faith. He says that the people held to this doctrine so vitally that they wept around the new-born infant and smiled upon his death; for the beginning and end of an earthly life were to them the imprisonment and release of a soul which must undergo repeated trials to remove degrading impurities before finally rising into a succession of higher spheres.

There is also an old legend that King Arthur, his body healed of his wounds, and his soul healed of the hurts of treachery, would come back again to teach and lead.

Many English poets have written with great feeling and beauty respecting this doctrine, in which connexion we might quote the words of Plato regarding poets: "Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand," and also the words of Bulwer Lytton, who said that "Poets are the truest diviners of nature."

William Wordsworth, in his "Intimations of Immortality," writes of it almost intuitively.

Alfred Tennyson, who was the poet-laureate of his time, also wrote of reincarnation with a sure and brilliant pen, of which "De Profundis," "Two Voices," and especially his Early Sonnet I, are examples in his poetry.

Robert Browning also writes of it in his "One Word More":

I shall never, in the years remaining,
Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues.
This of verse alone, one life allows me: . . .
Other heights in other lives, God willing.

Sir Edwin Arnold's beautiful Light of Asia — describing the life of the Buddha Gautama — is a classic which presents the teaching of Reincarnation and Karman in a masterly way. The following passage is an example of his beautiful writing:

The Books say well, my Brothers! each man's life
The outcome of his former living is;
The bygone wrongs bring forth sorrows and woes
The bygone right breeds bliss.
That which ye sow ye reap. See yonder fields
The sesamum was sesamum, the corn
Was corn. The silence and the Darkness knew!
So is a man's fate born.

And today, the present poet-laureate, John Masefield, in his "My Creed," gives a graphic and practical picture of this teaching.

Of prose writers, Marie Corelli, who was Queen Victoria's favorite author, was an ardent believer in reincarnation and it plays an important part in her novels. Kipling likewise, in his "The Finest Story in the World," writes of it, as did Henry More, Shelley, and Rossetti, among many others.

UNITED STATES

Coming now to our own United States, we find that many of the Indian tribes believed in reincarnation. The Maryland Indians stated that the white men were an ancient generation who had come to life again and had returned to seize their former land. Among the Algonquins, the women who desired to become mothers, flocked to the couch of those about to die in the hope that the soul, as it passed out from the body, would enter theirs.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was called the Plato of the nineteenth century, and who was also a student of the literatures of the East, was an ardent believer in the doctrine of reincarnation and in his "Representative Men" practically quotes Plato in connexion with Plato's teaching that "all knowledge is reminiscence."

But the most important exponent of Reincarnation in America, the one possessing the most actual knowledge on the subject and the greatest authority, was Madame H. P. Blavatsky, who in 1875 founded the Theosophical Society with several others in New York. We might add here that it is the teaching of Theosophy that in the last quarter of every century a messenger is sent from the Great White Lodge to do special public work in the world, and in the last century H. P. Blavatsky was this Messenger or Envoy, and the work she began is carried on today by our present Leader, Dr. G. de Purucker.

Madame Blavatsky's short definition of the word Reincarnation, as it appears in the Glossary of her Key to Theosophy, is so clear and concise that I would like to read it to sum up the teaching. She writes:

Reincarnation, or Re-birth; the once universal doctrine, which taught that the Ego is born on this earth an innumerable number of times. Now-a-days it is denied by Christians, who seem to misunderstand their own gospels. Nevertheless, the putting on of flesh periodically and throughout long cycles by the higher human soul (Buddhi-Manas) or Ego is taught in the Bible as in all other ancient scriptures, and "resurrection" means only the rebirth of the Ego in another form.

In conclusion, Friends, I believe I can do no better than to end our study this afternoon with the words of the American poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, which words, taken from his "The Chambered Nautilus," are really a petition or prayer to rise ever higher in each succeeding rebirth:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last.
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!


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