The truths of Theosophy, brought to us by H. P. Blavatsky seventy years ago, have gradually infiltered the world of thought until today we find Reincarnation and Karman the subject of essays and novels by well-known popular authors. This means that those doctrines will reach a public larger in numbers and different in kind than could be reached by the usual channels of propaganda: it is only a minority who go in search of truths; a majority wait until it is brought to their doors; moreover they will attend to teachings which reach them in this way, whereas prejudice and habit might have left them long unaware of the existence of the teachings if conveyed through the medium of societies and cults.
Any doctrine, in thus passing from its source through successive strata, undergoes modifications in accordance with laws of evolution. It becomes less abstract and universal, more particularized and adapted to conditions. Its technical terms are translated into familiar equivalents. It is an interesting question to consider the phenomena of such an evolution. It is not feasible to regard the process as wholly one of gain or of loss. Conservation and change are inseparable components of growth; an excess of either is disastrous — hide-bound dogmatism on the one hand, unrestrained license and promiscuity on the other. It may be supposed that H. P. Blavatsky neither expected nor wished to force upon the world a hard-and-fast ready-made creed, like some desk-made constitution palmed off upon a nation striving to rebuild after a revolution. What she anticipated was a leavening of thought along the lines she laid down. And is not this what we are witnessing? There are certain things which must be kept intact, not because they are dogmatic creeds, but because they are universal truths; and it is the duty of Theosophists, while watching the spread of their ideals in the world, to preserve inviolable the source whence the stream has flowed, and to balance the claims of permanence and flexibility.
We have seen the noble truths of Reincarnation and Karman take many strange forms in the hands of some; for the husbandman had scattered his seeds generously, fall where they might. But no such charge can be brought against the present writer, who dwells on a high plane of thought and feeling. He is the author of World-Birth, We Do Not Die, and several novels; he has a wide public, and his little book will serve as an admirable introduction of his subject to those for whom it is untrodden ground. In short, we may regard it as a popular Theosophical manual. We are taken over ground familiar to Theosophists: the definition of reincarnation, the testimony in favor of it, the internal evidences of its truth, answers to the usual objections, and so forth. The author writes as a Christian, but, it must be conceded, a very liberal one, since he includes reincarnation as a part. God is for him the supreme ruler of the universe.
While admitting the compound nature of man, he prefers to limit himself chiefly to a tripartite division into body, soul, and spirit, or (as might be said) the lower, intermediate, and higher nature. In this we think he is wise, considering the end in view; as is also his refusal to be drawn into the discussion of origins and questions of infinitude. His inclination to present life under the aspect of love and beauty may prove a useful antidote to anyone who tends to represent the universe in a too cold and abstract guise. In speaking of the justice of Karman, he does not view that justice as the decree of an emotionless lawgiver, but as a manifestation of universal Love; which reminds us of Portia. Love is for him the universal law and spirit of all things; it is also the goal of human endeavor, after ages of successive rebirths shall have cleaned away the dross of self-seeking. Jesus is for him what we should call a Nirmanakaya, no longer necessitated to reincarnate, but accepting birth out of compassion for those yet on the way. And here we may point out that he represents the discarnate soul as having the choice whether or not to reincarnate, though he qualifies this by the statement that, nevertheless, that soul must sooner or later elect to visit earth again for purposes of its own necessary experience. Theosophists say that the soul is drawn back to earth by trishna, the thirst for physical life, which cannot be resisted but by those who through long experience have succeeded in overcoming that thirst.
On this question of love, however, the author expresses some views with which most Theosophists will hesitate to concur. For instance we read the following:
We are passing from a materialist to a spiritual view of life and death, with Man and his partner, Woman, realizing, not only by faith but by demonstration, that they are immortal spirits, (p. 7)
Again and again we drop the thread of our love-story, but to pick it up either here or "Over There," which is the home of the "twin soul." I say it with all seriousness. The "twin soul" is fact. We do so return over and over again to earth to meet her or him whom we have loved — and lost but to find again, (p. 95)
Difficulty in discussing this question arises from the fact that it so readily lends itself to the raising of false issues. Theosophists, in stating their case, may be charged with a lack of appreciation of the power of love between the sexes, or with some temperamental or physical coldness, or lack of experience, or cynicism due to disillusionment, and so forth. This however is by no means the case; the kind of people thus indicated would not find themselves at home in the ranks of a society calling for energy and enthusiasm, depth of feeling and a fully developed nature. If fault is to be found with this writer, it is surely not with his ideals, of whose elevation we have such abundant proof, but with his manner of expressing some of them. What means purity and nobility for him will mean something quite different for others of a different mental caliber; and the experience of many Theosophists has taught them what such a term as "twin soul" may be made to stand for.
We would observe that what the author himself says about reincarnation scarcely bears out the idea that sex pertains to the reincarnating entity. Is it not rather, conformably to the author's own expositions, one of those qualities which belong to the temporary and changing embodiments? Human love between the sexes derives its power and sublimity from its being a manifestation of that cosmic and impersonal love of which the author speaks so finely; but from its mixture with earthy and passional elements it also derives that alloy which notoriously and proverbially makes it as fruitful of gall as of honey. Love between the sexes is truly a redeemer, opening for man the gates that lead him beyond selfishness and acquisitiveness; and the vicissitudes of feeling which it engenders are man's teachers. But many a soul, while still on earth, has passed beyond to regions where love, undisturbed by passion, unlimited by personality, has revealed its sublimer mysteries. Much more so, then, when the liberated Soul, no longer snared in the illusions of earth-life, rests in that land where they neither marry nor are given in marriage.
This writer dwells on psychic survival, spiritualistic phenomena, and similar matters, usually passed by or disparaged by Theosophical writers. But we must remember that he is not a Theosophical writer, but one who writes for the world he lives in. And it may be added that, while it is incumbent on Theosophists to draw clearly the distinction between psychic and spiritual, they would do so to better effect if they had a more intimate knowledge of what is actually going on in the world. To dismiss a matter lightly with a few vague and general statements will not satisfy people who want an explanation of real experiences.
One finds in this book, as elsewhere in advocacy, the attempt to prop a good case with bad arguments, and the use of arguments which neutralize each other. Thus, while the frequent mention of reincarnation by writers of all ages is adduced in support of a universal belief in reincarnation, yet when it comes to the silence of the Old Testament writers on the subject, that very silence is adduced in support of the same thesis. They were silent because reincarnation was so well known that it was needless to mention it. Again, it is stated that —
They also forget that their objections do not make reincarnation any the less a fact! Nature shows a magnificent indifference to human revolt!
That is, the argumentum ad hominem, the appeal to feeling, is rejected on logical grounds; yet it would be difficult to show that this same appeal to feeling is nowhere used throughout this book as an argument in favor of the case. But we are all guilty of this; and in a world where people are moved by their feelings, it is legitimate to use rhetoric as well as logic.
The question of reincarnation and heredity presents no difficulty, for the teachings as to Karman and Reincarnation are seen to be complementary to the scientific findings. The adducing of physical resemblance and habits between Elijah and John as evidences of reincarnation involves the assumption that successive incarnations have such resemblances; whereas from what is said elsewhere we might infer differences. According to Theosophy there may even be a difference of sex. There is a good deal in this book as to cases which are regarded as direct proof of reincarnation, the memory of past lives, recognitions, etc. This is a question fraught with grave danger of delusion, and such mental impressions may be explained otherwise than by reincarnation. The author makes a quotation often made by Theosophists — "In my Father's house are many mansions" — which he interprets as meaning that many different experiences await us in the course of our incarnations. He believes that there is no permanent and unchanging heaven or hell; that inspiration and genius are memory — the familiar Platonic doctrine; that Karma is not fatalism, as it does not preclude the action of will and freedom of choice; that "good" and "bad" are epithets often ignorantly applied to our fate; that the physical differences between planes of matter are differences of vibration rather than of density; that after death we pass to a world which we have prepared for ourselves by our own desires, good or bad, refined or coarse; that the personality is a temporary and limited affair, circumscribing the true individuality; and many other ideas familiar to Theosophists.
But we must close, with the regret that space has allowed us to quote only one of the passages we had marked:
I, who believe in no dogma, belong to no Church, shall hope to prove, that every man and woman of us all, from prince to peasant, from queen to kitchen-maid, gets a second chance. Not one second chance, but hundreds. That all of us are on a path which leads through eternity as inevitably to the stars as that the stars themselves hang high above us to beckon us on the road. And, finally, that, life after life, death is but the dying into new life, more abundant, more comprehensive.
1. Reincarnation for Everyman. By Shaw Desmond. London: Andrew Dakers.1939. 5s. (return to text)