One of the great Theosophical teachings, that of Reincarnation, is here explained. The speaker is Miss Elsa-Brita Bergqvist, who on May 4th last year gave this broadcast as the seventh of a series of fifteen minute expositions of Theosophical doctrine by herself and Miss Inga Sjostedt, over radio station XQHB, Shanghai, China.
Good evening, everybody:
The speaker last Sunday gave an outline of the history of the doctrine of reincarnation. This evening an attempt will be made to demonstrate the logic and philosophic plausibility of this belief, which has formed an integral part of the pure religions of all times.
Those who are unfamiliar with the doctrine of reincarnation may tend to recoil from the word with the thought that it is a heathen idea and means that human beings come back as animals. If we give the matter a little thought, however, it will become clear that, although pagan, the belief is supported by a firm ground-work of common sense, and it must not be confused with transmigration, which in some of its aspects teaches a return to animal bodies. Natural evolution goes always forward — a lesson learnt cannot be unlearnt, though it can be forgotten. Similarly a being having reached manhood cannot go back to animality, though he can forget his manhood and behave like an animal — but he remains a man.
It has been mentioned before that all natural evolution proceeds in a series of cycles — the cycles of life and death being among them. Reincarnation then, or re-infleshment, is one phase of the greater cycle of reimbodiment, which applies to all the realms of universal nature. We see the evidence of this cyclic process all round us — Nature's annual revival every spring is so familiar a fact that its significance often goes unnoticed.
First of all, if we admit the immortality of the essential man, let us see for a moment where this leads us. Immortality means deathlessness or eternal life. If we believe in eternal life after the death of the physical body, we must of necessity believe also in a pre-existence before the birth of the body, otherwise we should have eternity stretching in one direction only, which is a philosophical absurdity — like having boundless space with one boundary. Therefore we reach the conclusion that we have existed before and shall continue to exist after the shedding of our physical and lower emotional garments, these being the vehicles we build for ourselves in order to function on the earth where we live.
We cannot hope during one short life to attain to the state of perfection which is our goal, neither can we garner all the experience which earth-life has to offer. In fact the thought of one single life on earth is as unsatisfactory as the idea of attending school for one lesson. There is so much to be learnt and there are so many contacts to be made, so many circumstances to be met and responsibilities to be shouldered that one earth-life is ludicrously inadequate. This would seem to be the reason why the believers in the one-life theory are almost invariably displeased at the thought of death, and even frightened, no matter what rewards are offered them thereafter.
If we look at life today from a practical point of view, we see around us innumerable instances of the most flagrant injustice — apparent injustice from the view-point of the theosophist. It is unnecessary to enumerate any examples — they are only too obvious, and who has not at one time or another been astonished and distressed by the staggering contrasts prevalent in the social order? It is impossible to reconcile these incongruities with the order and harmony ruling the universe in general, unless we realize that what we see is but a fraction of the whole — that, could we review the entire vista of all our past lives on earth, then each and every circumstance we meet would fall into its place as the natural outcome of our former deeds — and is our self-created destiny.
We build into ourselves at every moment the thoughts and ideas we harbor in our minds, and we are at any given moment the products of our former thoughts and deeds. To those who like to push the responsibility for their weakness on to a god who created them such, and who want leisure to sin as much as they please in the certainty of being forgiven anyhow, this doctrine is an unwelcome thought, for it brings home to us the tremendous responsibility we carry in creating ourselves and our destiny.
One question is often asked: "Why don't we remember our past lives?" Just think back for a moment — Can any of us remember every lesson we learnt at school? Of course not. Yet we are the same people who then underwent the agonies of learning many things that have long since slipped our memories. The general outlines of our schooldays remain with us and form as a whole what we are pleased to term our education. In the same way we have forgotten the incidents which composed our former existences, although the aggregated results thereof combine to form what we are pleased to call our characters. There is however a difference. In our schooldays we had the same physical brain as we have today, the same thought-instrument, whereas in our former lives we had bodies and brains that died a long time ago. Incidentally, in a few rare instances people have been known to remember their past lives and to describe circumstances thereof, which could be verified, but such cases are exceptional.
Theosophy teaches that when a man dies, his physical body is the first to lose its vitality, or the vital essence, which animates it during life — although the brain remains active for an hour or more after the heart has stopped beating. This fact has but recently been corroborated by medical science. During this hour or so the dead man re-lives his past life in a series of vivid pictures, omitting no detail. In a few cases of almost complete death by drowning or freezing, or other slow death, people have been resuscitated even after this process has commenced and have lived to tell the tale. When this is over, the physical body commences to disintegrate and to release the astral or model-body of semi-physical matter. This astral matter is not far removed from the physical that we can see, and can occasionally under abnormal circumstances become visible. These astral shells it is that have given rise to various ghost stories and it is such beings that are attracted to spiritualistic seances. The astral body of the dead man combined with his lower desires and emotions continues to exist as a coherent whole until it has exhausted the vitality or impulse, which the man during life gave to that part of his nature. In the case of a gross and brutish man this is naturally a slow and painful process, whereas in the case of a man whose impulses were centered in the higher parts of his constitution, it is almost unnoticeable and very much quicker. From this teaching has sprung the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. The spiritual ego of the man then garners from his intermediate nature or soul, all that was fine and spiritual and proceeds to what we could call a heaven-world of his own making, where he exists with all his noblest aspirations and emotions in a beautiful dream, until the energy he had given during life to the higher part of his nature has been exhausted. Then the ego begins to yearn towards earth-life and, passing through the realms where the component parts of his lower nature are dispersed, he re-collects his tendencies and aptitudes and is born again, with certain definite characteristics, acquired through many earlier lives. This accounts for the appearance of such people as infant prodigies and geniuses. Many lifetimes of training in a subject may produce an expert of that subject at a very tender age. It accounts also for certain family and national characteristics, for we are naturally attracted to the surroundings and people with which we are familiar and with whom we have formed links of affection or similarity — individuals with whom we have something in common.
Death is an adventure very similar to sleep. It is in fact an exact analogy. Each night in sleep the ego passes through vivid experiences in dreams, which are colored by the general experiences of the previous day. Except in cases of prophetic dreams or nightmares engendered by physical discomfort our dream-life corresponds to the state of mind in which we have passed the day. Exactly the same is the case in death, with the difference only that then we leave our bodies behind completely, whereas in sleep we still keep in touch with them and can return to them and waking life at any moment. Sleep is an imperfect death — death a perfect sleep.
The doctrine of reincarnation or reimbodiment is intimately connected with the doctrine of Karman, the law of cause and effect. Every action causes a reaction, which in its turn becomes the cause of a new effect. In our relations with other human beings we are therefore inextricably woven into a web of causes and effects, some set in motion many lives ago. If we realize the extent of this most complex thought, we understand why many lives are necessary to readjust the balance of actions and pick up the loose threads of former lives, before at length the entire human race shall have run its course on our earth and become ready for the next step in evolution.