Copyright © 2001 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
You and I are on a vast pilgrimage of exploration of the cosmos. We entered it aeons ago, impelled by the divine spark within us to seek experience, to gain knowledge of ourselves and of the truths of nature. In order to grow, to evolve, we took on bodies of gradually increasing materiality so that we might learn firsthand what this whole earth experience is about. Though we may not fully realize it, as we are often at cross-purposes with ourselves and with our circumstances, we as a humanity are beginning to awaken, to shake off our cloaks of matter, of blindness, and to glimpse a little behind the veil of appearances to the reality of the godhead that gave us birth. And that godhead is both our Self and our Father in heaven.
Reincarnation offers a sound and compassionate perspective on the totality of our lives. What other theory can compare with the ennobling concept that human beings, in concert with all of nature's kingdoms, are evolving participants in a timeless cosmic process — a process that includes a succession of births and deaths in and for every life form? It encompasses both the infinitely large and the infinitely minute. Who are we? Where did we come from, and why? And what kind of future may we expect, as individuals and as a species? There is a great deal of confusion in our current thinking, largely because we have alienated ourselves from our source, our god-essence. We need to know with certainty that our roots go deeper than this one life, and that a part of us endures beyond death. We need to find meaning in suffering and behind the frightening injustices inflicted upon children, animals, and millions of innocent victims of ruthless crimes and senseless accidents when there is no apparent cause in this life.
Solid knowledge today about these matters that ought most to concern us is appallingly slight, not because it is unavailable — there is a fund of teaching and practical wisdom in the world's religions, in myth, legend, aboriginal tradition, and fairy tale — but because we have forgotten how to apply the universal keys that are waiting to be used intelligently and with altruistic motive.
The concept of reincarnation is, of course, very old, and the cyclic return of the human soul for learning purposes and expansion of awareness was as widely understood throughout the ancient pagan world as it still is in much of the Orient. Several early Church Fathers, versed in Platonic and Pythagorean thought, accepted it, among them Origen, who wrote of the soul's preexistence and of its taking birth again in a body according to its merits and former deeds; and, further, that ultimately, when bodies and material things will suffer ruin and disappear, all spirits will be united in one.
For centuries these and other doctrinal theses of Origen were considered as having been officially condemned and banned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council called by Emperor Justinian and held in Constantinople in 553 AD. Careful scrutiny of the record, however, shows that neither Origen nor his beliefs were aired at any session of the Council. It was at an extra-conciliary meeting held prior to the Council that fifteen Anathemas were pronounced against Origen and his teachings, the first of which reads:
If anyone assert the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema. — Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, comp. and ed. by Joseph Head and Sylvia Cranston, p. 159 ff.
It seems incomprehensible to us today that a teaching as broadly accepted and as logical and spiritually satisfying as reincarnation should have been withdrawn from public knowledge and held under ecclesiastical wraps for nearly 1,500 years. One cannot help wondering what the history of the Occident might have been had the concept of reincarnation remained a vivifying element in the Christian message. Providentially, although it was taboo to preach from the pulpit the doctrine of the soul's rebirth, the immortal song of bards and poets could not be silenced, and when the Renaissance came, philosophers joined poets in speaking and writing openly of intimations of an earlier life or lives. Later, Transcendentalists on both sides of the Atlantic powerfully affirmed their support of this transforming idea, this doctrine of hope and consolation.
Against the background of cosmic cycles, the birth and death of stars, and the annual renewal of earth and all its kingdoms, reincarnation is seen as the human mode of the universal process of Divinity manifesting in terrestrial spheres — the Word made flesh of Christian tradition — the Logos seeking imbodiment after imbodiment in numberless forms for the purpose of bringing into activity the seed-logos dwelling within the inmost essence of every entity. Is this not what the human adventure is all about: to become that which we feel so deeply we really are?
Many have the feeling as their life goes by that there is so much still unfinished, so much that could be expressed were there more time. Our body grows older, but we don't. How natural, then, for the evolving ego to return to earth after a rest period to continue inscribing new pages in its Book of Life. Everything works together, smaller cycles meshing with larger cycles to enable the fullest growth possible for each entity in its appropriate time and place. To this end nature provides ever new forms so that her myriad children — each a living being, a consciousness-center, a monad at its heart — may pursue their evolutionary goals. The cells of our body are born and die many times within our life span, yet we retain our physical integrity; family and friends know us even though our entire complement of molecules, cells, and atoms are continually being renewed. It's a miracle: the years pass, our hair turns white, but we are always recognizable as ourselves. And why? Because there is a substratum of form, an astral or model body on which the physical is built; and that astral model is itself but a reflection of an inner model. You can go further and further inward until you come to the life-seed, the logos within every person, the light of the Logos which "lighteth every man that cometh into the world."
A number of Buddhist texts refer to svabhava, "self-becoming": that what is inherent in the invisible essence of an entity will "self-become," that is, will unfold that essence in accordance with its own distinctive pattern. In Genesis, God ('elohim) commanded the earth to bring forth grass and herbs and the fruit tree, "whose seed is in itself," each after its kind (1:11-12). Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:38-41) also speaks of God (theos) giving to every seed its own body: "there is one glory of the sun," another glory of the moon, and another of the stars, "for one star differeth from another star in glory."
The basic idea of svabhava ties in with the Vedantic concept of sutratman: sutra, "thread, cord," and atman, "self." This "thread-self" or radiant essence not only links every portion of our multifaceted being, from the divine to the physical, but also links us with the totality of our past. How many lives must we have lived? We don't know; but if we believe at all in the immortality of spirit, we have a sense of an infinity of experience both behind as well as ahead of us. Every human being therefore has a rich reserve of unexpended force within (for good and ill) that at some time in this life or in lives to come will seek outlet; the entirety of our karma could not find expression within the brief interval of seventy or eighty years, or of twenty.
At every moment we are the totality of our past and the promise of the future that is to be. Such a perspective gives a feeling of continuity, an assurance that all that we have been remains in essence, incised on the memory tablets of eternity, on the seed-logos of our being, waiting for the precise karmic circumstances to find active expression.
HPB speaks of sutratman, the "thread of radiance," as being imperishable throughout the great world cycle and disappearing or dissolving only in nirvana, the great rest period, after which it will reemerge "in its integrity on the day when the Great Law calls all things back into action." (The Secret Doctrine 2:80) This opens up a marvelous vista. Just as Jesus told the Jews in the temple, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), so humanity as a life-wave of monads was there as essences, particles of divinity, of life, of consciousness, awaiting the cyclic moment when the universe was to come forth again in a new birth, a new flowering. When it manifests, we do also, numberless seed-logoi, seeds of life, each with its distinctive character or svabhava; and at the close of its active cycle, when it enters another rest period, we do likewise, for we are part of and one with all — there is no separation. Yet every spark of godhood, though reabsorbed into non-being when the drama of a life-period ends, retains its inherent mark of selfhood. This is its mark, and no one else's: the whole purpose of its being is to develop its characteristic essence to the full.
How does this vast picture of reimbodiment of worlds and human beings and all life forms relate to the scientific views of heredity? Obviously, physical mechanisms for heredity exist, but could the body be formed without any connection with the part of us that outlasts many deaths? In his writings, G. de Purucker goes into the subject of reincarnation extensively, emphasizing that the process of rebirth starts long before the moment of conception. When an individual feels the urge to be born again on earth, the reincarnating element is attracted magnetically to the father and mother to be, and begins to form a laya-center (The mystical point where an energy or thing vanishes from one plane to manifest on a higher or lower plane) or focus of attraction for its former life-atoms, physical and other.
Once conception takes place, it directs the building of its body within the mother's womb. The mother is the protector, the channel, and nurturer, as is also the father, for both parents share in providing protection to the growing child, which in a very real sense extends beyond its physical compass. As the incoming entity gradually forms its new physical vehicle by gathering life-atoms that formerly belonged to it, so the body will inevitably bear the stamp of the child-to-be. In due course a child is born. (Consult The Esoteric Tradition and Fountain-Source of Occultism by G. de Purucker)
Our DNA contains a record of all our past. It couldn't be otherwise. That physically every human being has a genetic code distinctly its own confirms the theosophic teaching that each of us is his own karma; and, further, that our present character and circumstances in this life are not the outcome of only one previous life's karma, but of the karma that we have engendered for kalpas beyond number. We are ageless sparks of eternity, with a beginningless and endless pattern of destiny that has been in the making for aeons. In every atom of our being, from the physical to the divine, we are stamped with the memory essences of what we have been and aspired to be. Our individual DNA is the physical record of our inner explorations, adventures, progress — and of our future too, because we are the future in seed.
In reality the reincarnation of a human being is primarily a spiritual event. Life is sacred at all times. It does not start with conception; its manifestation on this plane may begin then, but life is a continuing process. We have confused our values largely because we know so little about who we are. We think that we as parents own our children and that because sperm and ovum meet and an embryo forms within the body of a mother, that the mother makes the child. That is not true. The living entity that is animating a fetus is not a new creation, freshly minted by God for this life only; rather, it represents a reentry into earth-life of a returning ego or soul that has had a long series of lives reaching back into eternity's past. In this context, indeed, abortion is highly questionable, except to save the life of the mother. Who are we to decide to cut short the soul's experience in midstream? We cannot cut it off completely, but we can and do interrupt its process of incarnation — fortunately only for a time, because the returning soul will try again and again, if need be, until it finds an opening for rebirth.
Undoubtedly there are instances when the decision is extremely difficult: victims of rape, of willful assault and incest, draw deeply upon our sympathies. Nevertheless, the fact remains: a child who has been begun has as much right for a chance on this earth as any other, painful though the circumstances may be for it and all concerned. None of us knows the interlinkings of karma that impel that child to seek just those parents and those conditions which, if worked through intelligently and with love, will benefit child and parents alike.
Paradoxically, we know too much and too little about the mystery of birth. Modern technology enables parents to see the growing embryo and discover perchance that their baby will be badly crippled or mentally handicapped. The thought instinctively comes: wouldn't it be kinder to end the baby's life before it is born, so as to save it and its parents needless suffering? It is a harrowing decision; but with the larger perspective that a knowledge of reincarnation and karma yields, the question remains: should we not give the benefit to life rather than to death? We have to distinguish between the immortal element and the body. Oftentimes physical handicaps are of signal import for soul development; we are not trained or wise enough to comprehend the inner purpose behind an incoming ego's choice of a mental or physical abnormality. Isn't it conceivable that the reincarnating ego might "choose" the karma of a defective vehicle for purposes beyond our knowing?
When we trust that life is inherently just and compassionate, regardless of appearances and seeming injustices and cruelties that beset people all over the world, we know that no child is born to a family or into circumstances where it does not belong. In principle, it is fairly simple to agree to this. However, if our higher self invites into our home a child who is severely impaired, mentally, physically, or psychologically, it may be difficult at first not to feel we have been cheated. There are thousands, probably millions of these "special" children, but this by no means indicates they are spiritually handicapped. If we can take the long-range view we will know that this little one has chosen us as parents, to love and nurture it through its present ordeal. To give love and tenderness unconditionally calls for a magnanimity of soul that accepts the present karma as a gift. The wonder is that many parents, after the initial shock, are doing just this, drawing upon resources of love and resilience they were unaware they had.
These teachings about death, rebirth, and the continuum of the consciousness-center have appeal because they apply directly to many aspects of our life and our relationships. We are many-splendored beings, with a karmic history stretching far into the past and with an ever receding horizon of opportunity before us. We can dare to believe in ourselves and in humanity's future. Inwardly, whatever the individual or global karma, we have an ancestry of soul experience that has been aeons in the making, giving assurance of unimagined richness of quality and power yet to be unfolded in future cycles.
Theosophical Society Homepage