When H. P. Blavatsky started the Theosophical Society in 1875 the doctrine of Reincarnation was so little known in the West that the idea that we come back to earth for rebirth was laughed at. Today many thinking people accept it, while many others at least do not reject it. However, the great majority of orthodox Christians have no idea that during the early centuries of the Christian era it was a doctrine held by many devoted Christians, including some of the greatest Christian Fathers.
Doubtless one of the reasons why present-day Christians have no suspicion that it was an early teaching in their Church is that in the New Testament there is little direct reference to it. It is not specifically taught. So the doubter may well ask, "How is it that a doctrine of such importance should be referred to at best in an incidental way instead of being dealt with explicitly?" It is a fair question, but instead of being a poser the answer is quite simple. In Matthew, xv, 24, we read, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Reincarnation was the general belief of the Jews at the time that Jesus came to them; it was the accepted belief of the Pharisees, by far the largest and most influential sect. So if Jesus considered his mission to be to influence Israel, what need to specialize on a teaching already believed in by them, any more than argue to convince them of the existence of a God in whom they already believed?
Further, Reincarnation was a common belief among the peoples in the surrounding countries. It was believed in by the Manicheans, who were not Christians but whose teachings had great influence with the followers of Christ; by the Gnostics, and by a Christian sect significantly known as the Pre-Existants. Origen and Clement of Alexandria, two of the most respected Christian Fathers of the First Century, plainly taught it. Josephus in the First Century speaks of it as the belief of the influential Pharisees. Philo Judaeus, a Platonizing Jew and contemporary of Josephus, taught Reincarnation.
So, if in the early days of the Church the doctrine was so well known, and if it has since disappeared, on whom properly rests the burden of proof — on those followers of Jesus (including his own disciples) who believed in Reincarnation; or on those followers who centuries later have forgotten what their predecessors believed in?
But how could so important a teaching be so almost completely forgotten? The answer is to be found in an historical fact which likewise has been forgotten: namely, that at the Council of Constantinople held 553 a. d. it was anathematized. So it was forgotten under compulsion.
In Psalms, Ixxxii, 5-6-7, we read:
They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course. I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you children of the most High. But ye shall die like men.
Here we are told that we are gods, that we all are Children of the Most High, but that we shall die like men. The fact that as men we die cannot take away the imperishableness of godhood. Gods are supposed to have eternal life, so if we are gods, then, logically we must have lived before, and no matter how often we may die as men, we should continue to be eternal. The same is repeated in Isaiah, xli, 23, "That we may know that ye are gods."
Then in John, x, 34, Jesus himself endorses it thus:
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, "I said Ye are gods?"
As subsequent verses indicate, his object in reminding the Jews that according to their own scriptures they were gods, was to answer the charge of blasphemy levelled against him by the Pharisees for saying: "I call myself the Son of God." This is interesting in view of the fact that the present-day orthodox teaching is that Jesus was the only Son of God.
Solomon must have believed in pre-existence, for in Proverbs, viii, 22-31, we read:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way . . . when he prepared the heavens I was there . . rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.
He must have pre-existed to have been there when the Lord prepared the heavens, and he speaks of delights with the sons of men before being born as Solomon.
In Matthew, xi, 14, we read:
And if ye will receive it, this [John the Baptist] is Elias, which was for to come.
This clearly enough is a declaration that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elias.
In Matthew, xvii, 12-13, we read:
But I say unto you, that Elias is come already and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. . . . Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
Here Jesus specifically recognises the doctrine of reincarnation, his question, in effect, being, "Whom do they think I am the reincarnation of?"
The same incident is repeated in Matthew, xvi, 13-14, as follows:
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
Supposedly the same question was asked on two different occasions. The second involves a point of additional interest in that he calls himself the Son of man instead of the Son of God. This harmonizes with Solomon, who after declaring that he was with the Lord at the beginning of Creation, likewise became a "Son of man."
In passing it is worth noting that while the orthodox Christian believes that everything in the Bible is the word of God, and hence that everything is to be taken literally without question, here we have one inconsistency: that the same Matthew is translated in one place as rendering "Elijah" and "Jeremiah," while in another, "Elias" and "Jeremias."
In John, ix, 1-2-3, we read:
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? Jesus answered, neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
From this it seems clear that the disciples must have believed in Reincarnation, else how could they have asked whether the man had been born blind for sins of his own? And although Jesus in his reply says nothing bearing upon Reincarnation, why, if he disapproved, did he not express surprise that his disciples should imagine such a thing as that a person who never lived before could have committed sin before being born? Would he allow his disciples to hold to a mistaken belief of such importance without a word of correction?
The present writer once quoted this text to a devout Christian to support the contention that Reincarnation was a forgotten Christian teaching. The Christian in reply made the point that Jesus did not commit himself in any way. That is true, but if we read a little farther we learn that after Jesus had rubbed the eyes of the man and restored his sight, the disciples spread the news of the wonder abroad, but the Pharisees when they heard of it refused to believe it, declaring that no man who refused to accept the Sabbath could perform a miracle. From this it can be inferred that Jesus performed the wonder for the express purpose of making an impression on the skeptical Pharisees, and that what he meant by his answer was that in this particular case the man had been born blind in order in later years to serve as an instrument for the furtherance of the work of Jesus.
In Mark, vi, 14-15-16, we read:
And King Herod heard of him; and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, . . . Others said, That it is Elias. And others said, That it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets. But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded; he is risen from the dead.
This confirms that there must have been a common belief that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of some previous teacher, and that King Herod was among those who were believers in Reincarnation. And bear in mind that a King would not be likely to go on record as believing in Reincarnation if it were a doctrine so strange that he might make himself ridiculous by confessing a belief in it.
In Revelation, iii, 12, we read:
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.
From the viewpoint that Heaven is eternal the foregoing can have no meaning, but from the standpoint of Reincarnation the meaning logically is that the soul that has become perfect does not have to continue to revolve on the wheel of rebirth. The Hindu Bhagavad-Gita expresses the same idea and clearly links it with freedom from rebirth.
In the foregoing paragraphs an endeavor has been made to establish that Christianity had its beginnings in surroundings where prevailed a belief in Reincarnation, and extracts given from the Old and New Testaments evidence that the teaching, at least by implication, is to be found there.
Reincarnation was taught by Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato and Virgil, and was the keynote of the Platonic philosophy. It was believed in by the Persian Magi, and in Egypt, in Greece, by the ancient Peruvians, ancient Mexicans, the Arabs, Gauls, Druids and Celts.
Among modern philosophers, writers, poets, etc., who have taught Reincarnation directly or indirectly are: Dr. Henry More, Kant, Schelling, Leibnitz, Schopenhauer, Bruno, Lessing, Goethe, Flammarion, Emerson, Whittier, Bayard Taylor, Whitman, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Schiller and Milton.
Henry Ford has stated in the public press that he has been a believer in Reincarnation since his 26th year. It is a coincidence that Thomas A. Edison, who was a great friend of Ford, joined the Theosophical Society in the days of W. Q. Judge, although never active as a member.
Reincarnation in one form or another is believed in today by about 750,000,000 Asiatics.
In his Memoirs of Napoleon, Prince Talleyrand records that one day the Emperor was pacing back and forth before his tent and was overheard muttering, "I am Charlemagne, I am Charlemagne."
Whether or not he knew of the doctrine or believed in it, Mozart logically should have lived before, for he was able to compose difficult music when 8 years of age.
Still more logically Blind Tom must have pre-existed, for, born of ignorant negro parents, he could play the piano the first time he touched one, and instantly could play any tune upon hearing it whistled or played a single time.
Even from the standpoint of materialistic science Reincarnation may logically be deduced. According to science the body undergoes a complete change in a period of seven years; that is to say, that at the age of 14 there is not in the body a single atom that was there when the person was 7 years old. A man 49 years old, for example, has changed bodies seven times, and yet remained the same individual during those changes. This at least establishes an enduring individuality, and adding to that enduring individuality the fact that many historical persons have at an early age possessed talents which they could not have inherited from their parents, and which they had no opportunity in this life to develop prior to the time of manifesting those talents, we have pre-existence as the only logical explanation.
Another support is the testimony of many who while in the state of drowning have seen pass before them a photographic review of apparently all the incidents of their life up to that moment. This while not necessarily a proof of pre-existence, at least again supports the idea that man has a permanent individuality, distinct from the changing body.
A further support along this line is that when the body goes to sleep at night the individuality may in a dream go to the stars — a thing the physical body surely could not do — and when morning comes the individuality which has been absent all night returns to physical consciousness and begins where it left off the night before, sleep having had no effect of making a break in identity.
And without Reincarnation how could we ever reap what we sow?
The Bhagavad-Gita, the pearl of the Scriptures of India, says: "As the lord of this mortal frame experiences therein infancy, youth and old age, so in future incarnations will it meet the same." And again: "As a man throweth away old garments and putteth on new, even so the dweller in the body, having quitted its old mortal frames, entereth into others which are new." And again: "Death is certain to all things which are born, and rebirth to all mortals."
1. Indebtedness for considerable of the data contained in this article is acknowledged to the excellent work by E. D. Walker, Reincarnation: a Study of Forgotten Truth. This book was originally published about 1883, eight years after the founding of the Theosophical Society by H. P. Blavatsky, and it is still one of the valuable books listed in Theosophical University Press catalog for which there is still a constant demand. (return to text)
The Theosophical ForumTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE