Horizons Unlimited

By Virginia V. George

The care and devotion bestowed upon the presentation of reincarnation and its related theosophic principles shine warmly throughout another book co-authored by Sylvia Cranston — this one with Carey Williams — entitled Reincarnation: A New Horizon in Science, Religion, and Society (Theosophical University Press, 1984; 385 pages). Earlier books by Cranston and Head such as Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery, were magnificently researched affairs — veritable encyclopedias of reincarnation, and extremely valuable as reference works. Sylvia Cranston is a well-known reincarnation researcher, and Carey Williams a health education specialist who also conducts courses in death education.

This present volume is quite different, lovingly crafted and written more as a narrative, intermingled with personal views and comments. A portion is devoted to case histories of children who during their very early years appear to have retained memories of a former life. Each case is well documented by Dr. Ian Stevenson, Carlson Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, who is highly regarded by his colleagues. He has flown all over the world to obtain material to corroborate his findings and thus far five volumes have been published.

Dr. Stevenson found that children between two and four are of the best age to remember their experiences, and that between five and eight they begin to forget as they move out of the narrow family parameters and enter school and the larger world. These case histories are carefully substantiated so far as that is possible. Children usually begin by describing events, giving names of people or places where they say they lived, at times becoming angry when adults do not listen or believe them. Sometimes they complain of feeling cramped in these "small bodies."

At times children point to marks on their bodies (birthmarks) and say that this was where a knife, or bullet, or other weapon had wounded them. Having examined at least 200 such birthmarks, Dr. Stevenson thinks there must be some kind of nonphysical body that exists "in a state of which we know almost nothing." In theosophic writings this is called the astral or model body, which automatically records the effects of all experiences.

The section devoted to Near-Death Experiences (NDE's) will interest everyone whether they are reincarnationists (unwieldy word!) or not. Throughout the chronicled cases there runs a common theme, as reported by Dr. Raymond Moody in his book, Life After Life. The person is drastically ill or being surgically operated upon. He (or she, throughout) hears the doctor's/bystander's voice noting his grave condition, and finds himself out of his body, floating near the ceiling and looking down upon the scene. He goes through a long, dark tunnel at the end of which people he has known and loved come to meet him and help him. A being of light appears before him who emanates an almost indescribable love and understanding and who shows him a panoramic vision of his past life for his appraisal. "At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life," and he understands that he must return to his earthly life as his time has apparently not yet come. His return is made reluctantly because he has felt such joy, peace, and serenity that he wants to stay in that state always.

The near-death experience has a profound effect upon most people, very often changing their entire lives and certainly their feelings about death and afterlife. In some cases children speak of having encountered holy men or beings in white who had welcomed them when they previously died, and guided them. Such beings did not seem to choose the next birth for the soul; they simply took it to the place where it should be in order to make its choice.

Again, individuals tell of operating in a more subtle finer body that sees through and passes through walls as though they were not there, traveling great distances with the speed of thought. One subject recounted how he had been in a near-fatal accident and left his body. The subject said he thought of his mother at home, was instantly with her, and saw her receive the telegram which told of his accident. Thereupon, against his will he found himself transported to a room near his home where a neighbor woman had given birth to a stillborn baby girl. He had "an almost irresistible impulse to press my face through the back of the baby's head so that my face would come out at the same place as the child's." However, sensing his mother's grief, he realized that he ought to return to his own body. This he did, "and the effort caused the real me to sit up in bed fully conscious." To the astonishment of his parents he repeated almost word for word some of the conversation they had had about his accident.

The authors explain the difference between clinical and biological death and in this connection they quote from H. P. Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled that "a resuscitation, after the soul and spirit have entirely separated from the body and the last electric thread is severed, is impossible." And from her Secret Doctrine (1, 555), that resuscitation can occur if the "astral 'vital body' has not been irreparably separated from the physical body by the severance of the magnetic or odic cord [Odic, Od: electricity or magnetism]."

Reincarnation is traced in Christianity, Gnosticism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, all shown to have the same underlying beliefs and teachings. The acceptance of rebirth is so common in India that their philosophers deal with what they consider much more important: freeing the soul from the cycle of reincarnation to pass into ultimate spiritual realization, or nirvana. The Bhagavad-Gita expresses rebirth beautifully in the familiar lines: "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."

There is a good deal of space allotted to the life of the Buddha, and many of his teachings, including reincarnation, are similar to those in every great religion. They quote Sir Edwin Arnold:

Our Lord attained Samma-sambuddh; he saw,
By light which shines beyond our mortal ken,
The line of all his lives in all the worlds;
Far back, farther back, and farthest yet,
Five hundred lives and fifty. . . . -- The Light of Asia, Bk. vi

The chapter, "Judaic Teachers and Prophets," traces reincarnation in the Old Testament, the Kabbalah, and in Jewish mysticism. One small and delightful quotation — "Prayer Before Retiring at Night" by the great Hasidic teacher Rabbi Shneur Zalman:

Master of the Universe! I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me, or sinned against me, either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other. — Siddur Tehillat Hashem

Elaine Pagels calls Gnostics "Christians who possess knowledge (gnosis) of Jesus' secret teaching — knowledge hidden from the majority of believers" until they have "proven themselves to be spiritually mature" — surely a reference to early Mystery schools. Gnostic teaching and instruction were open to women as well as men and rebirth of the human soul was taught.

The authors believe that religious wars and intolerance would cease if all people included in their beliefs the best of each of the world's religions, for then "all of humanity's Great Teachers would become the teachers of us all," This book offers that on a small scale. If someone picks up a book like this, looks at the title and interest quickens, then perhaps all the quotations and presentations given here will strike a chord, stir a memory. So many people need "proof"; yet, as the authors say, "What physicist — even with his newest electron microscope that magnifies 15 million times — has seen or experienced an electron or a neutron, or a quark, or the host of other elements believed to exist within the atom? Yet he speaks of these things as realities."

The philosophy of reincarnation applied to problems we face today — war, racial and religious strife, environmental and ecological concerns, crime, the difficulties of old age — is examined.

War, racial strife: Since we have been here many times, we have been in many different countries and races. The peace we make in the world today will not be peace only for our children — it will be peace for ourselves.

Environment: Especially important is our treatment of our planet and its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. The earth is home for everything on it and we share it with all the kingdoms and their evolving souls. Life in the lower kingdoms is reborn again and again as we are. We are particularly responsible for the animals; we are like bodhisattvas to them so we must care for them and be compassionate toward them.

Old age and death: Death and rebirth are analogous to sleeping and waking; all that we have learned throughout our lives will be there for us to implement and help us in the next life, just as when we awake in the morning, we have not forgotten what we learned the day before. Gandhi had this to say to a friend who had written of her mother's illness:

It is better to leave a body one has outgrown. To wish to see the dearest ones as long as possible in the flesh is a selfish desire . . .
The form ever changes, ever perishes. The informing spirit neither changes nor perishes. True love consists in transferring itself from the body to the dweller within, and then necessarily realizing the oneness of all life inhabiting numberless bodies. — Gandhi's Letters to a Disciple

Crime: When people realize there is an absolutely just law of exact compensation in the universe, and that it operates regardless of one's machinations to avoid it, perhaps they would think twice about committing a crime.

Cranston and Williams advocate the introduction of optional courses in death and reincarnation as part of the school curriculum. These could be taught in the same way that comparative religion classes are now, and let the students decide the issue for themselves. If only all teachers (and parents) could realize that each child is a unique being that has come from far in the past, that its personality, wisdom, and innate quality have been developed through countless existences, what care they might take with this delicate, evolving being!

In October of 1979 Sylvia Cranston lectured at Harvard University on "Reincarnation and the Book of Life," and since then her text has been used by many university and college teachers in their classes in religion, philosophy, and thanatology (death education). Her lecture was regarded so highly that the original typewritten version is at Yale University in their Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Portions of the lecture have been included here, offering the beliefs and conclusions of time-honored, eminent notables of all occupations who have intuited that rebirth is an inevitable and essential development in the evolution of humankind (and all beings). The material, as always with the author, is excellently researched, richly descriptive and thoughtful. Submitted as an alternative to present-day theories about the origin of life is the wisdom of the ancients as taught and preserved through the ages in all reaches of our earth.

If I were looking for a very readable book that I could give to someone, family or friend, who had evinced the slightest degree of interest in reincarnation, and with whom I wanted to share a belief that is an important part of my own life philosophy; if there were a book that could gain acceptance where no other had — this is the book I might choose.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press.)

  • Sunrise Back Issues Menu