The Theosophical Forum – September 1948

DEATH AND REBIRTH — William C. Beller

Death is a subject associated by most persons with very unpleasant emotions. The physical aspects of death are indeed repulsive enough, but such expressions as "The Grim Reaper" and "The King of Terrors" bear witness to a still deeper dread. Some religions have surrounded the close of human life with grim forebodings of judgment, punishment and doom. It is clear that this attitude of fear is the result of uncertainty and ignorance, the antidote to which is knowledge.

Now it may be a surprise to many that definite knowledge concerning death and what lies beyond it not only exists, but has existed for ages. The central question called up by our contemplation of death is: What is death?

Now it is obvious that death is an incident of life, so it follows that we cannot understand death without understanding life. What is the life itself, that something whose presence distinguishes the living body from the corpse?

From an objective point of view, life is recognized by its manifestations, such as activity, growth, purposeful behavior, response to stimuli, and the like; but we recognize it even more clearly by its subjective aspects, what we experience through being ourselves alive, such as feeling, willing and thinking. Materialism ascribes all these manifestations to activities of the body, and on this basis concludes that individual consciousness ends when the body dies. But what proof can it offer to support this conclusion? What do we really know about matter and its properties to justify the assumption that it can display any of the attributes of life?

The concept of matter is merely a mental abstraction, derived from certain of our experiences, whereas life is itself the basic stuff out of which all our experiences spring. There is no experience to support the view that matter is more fundamental than life or thought. The materialist demands proof of the existence of any reality besides matter, but we can turn right about and demand of him the proof that matter has any of the properties he attributes to it. There is no evidence that matter can produce life, thought or intelligence. On the other hand, our daily experiences deal continually with immaterial qualities. In our fellows, such qualities as character, temperament, behavior, and intelligence are far more important than bodily qualities, and in our inner life, sensation, feeling, willing and thinking form the primary basis of experience. Therefore the whole materialistic argument falls to the ground, and we are logically justified in vindicating the reality of non-physical things.

The failure of the materialistic argument leaves the question of life after death open, so we are free to consider the positive evidence in its favor. In the first place, there is no principle of science more firmly established than the indestructibility of force or energy. Now life is certainly a force or energy, so it must continue to exist in some form or other when the body can no longer give it a vehicle of expression. Then, how could consciousness be destroyed? Real things do not simply disappear into nothingness.

If we examine the beliefs of mankind we will find that there is no race of men, however primitive or however sophisticated, that does not believe in human immortality, and the very forms of this belief are strikingly similar. Of course there is a tendency today to despise ancient and universally held beliefs, attributing them to primitive superstition and wishful thinking, but this does not explain how the entire human race should have gone wrong on a matter so important to its welfare.

But there is positive evidence that certain aspects, at least, of the human personality do survive the death of the body. The field of so-called psychic phenomena is a controversial one, yet after we make full allowance for misrepresentation and delusion, there remains a mass of evidence which cannot be explained away upon any materialistic basis. "Ghost stories" are easy enough to scoff at, but they are real to the people who have gone through the occurrences they describe, and the literature of all peoples and times contains accounts which by their very similarity of pattern indisputably point to a factual basis. Moreover, within the last fifty years or so many persons of the highest integrity and scientific attainments have taken up the study of what they term "Psychical Research" and have accumulated evidence which entitles us to maintain that the survival of the human personality after bodily death is a scientifically established fact.

But the mere fact of human survival leaves many questions unanswered about the manner and conditions of such survival. The various religions and philosophies of the world have put forward a number of teachings which it may be worth while to examine in some detail. The view most widely held, in our Occident, is that a single life on earth is followed by an eternal life as a spirit, either in a state of happiness as a reward for virtue, or in a state of suffering as a punishment for wickedness. Generally this spirit life, whether of pleasure or pain, is regarded as fixed, changeless. This concept, of course, violates the law of growth which we see manifest in all nature. If we turn to the idea of justice, we find the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments incompatible with it. Justice requires an exact balance between cause and effect, and is not satisfied by infinite effects following finite causes. What amount of goodness in one short human life could merit an eternal reward, and what amount of evil could deserve an eternal penalty?

This gross injustice is even greater when we remember that many religions teach the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works. One is to be rewarded or punished not for the moral quality of his life, but for his adherence or non-adherence to some set of doctrines about which the vast majority of mankind has never even heard.

The fact that the greatest number of human beings are neither extremely virtuous nor extremely wicked, has led some religions to add to their heavens and hells an intermediate state of purification or purgation wherein all except those so extremely wicked as not to believe the doctrines of that particular religion might ultimately fit themselves for eternal happiness.

Philosophical objections to a fixed or static eternity would be overcome by the idea of continued progress and development in the spirit world. This very doctrine is upheld by certain modern religious cults. But the objection can be raised that if continuous progress towards an ultimate perfection is possible for a disembodiedspirit, why did that spirit have to embody itself even once? What would be the use or purpose of earth life in a human body anyway if this belief be true?

Quite a different view, one which has appealed quite strongly to some of our poets, is that the life of a man may be merged after his death with the universal life of nature. For instance, this is expressed by Shelley in his poem on the death of his friend Keats, in the lines:

He is a portion of that loveliness,
Which once he made more lovely.

While this idea may be aesthetically satisfying to some temperaments, it will hardly withstand an unimpassioned analysis. What part of a human personality would so merge with nature, and what benefit would result, either to the personality or to nature? And how can a self, or ego, be so divided?

A much cruder concept, albeit one widely held in some parts of the world, is that a human soul may be reborn in the lower forms of nature as, for instance, an animal, a plant, or even a stone. The objection to this is contained in the question: What good would it do? The animal, vegetable and mineral forms of nature obviously do not display human qualities, so a human soul imprisoned in such forms would be unable to express any human traits. Consequently, what would it gain by the experience?

Still another view advanced by some is that after death on earth one may be born on some other planet. This view merely exploits our ignorance. Since we know nothing about the conditions of life on any planet but the earth, we cannot categorically deny this possibility. But why go so far afield, why invoke the unknown and remote? Whatever arguments might be put forth in support of rebirth on some other planet, would support still more strongly the idea of rebirth in a human body here on earth. This last view, then, rebirth in a human body on earth, sometimes referred to as reincarnation, is one which may be worth closer examination.

In the first place, this idea of rebirth as a human being, is in no way contrary to logic or experience. Human bodies are being born all the time. As we have already seen it is most reasonable to explain the conscious, intelligent individualities of these bodies by the entrance into the body of a non-physical principle, a soul, if you will. But whence come these souls? Is it more reasonable to believe that each new-born body has a soul newly created for it, or that this soul is drawn from a vast reservoir of souls already in being, the souls of human beings who have lived and died in times gone by? Plato expressed the beautiful reasonableness of this in the Phaedo. If (as is obvious) the dead come from the living, where should the living come from, if not from the dead? This teaching explains all the otherwise inexplicable differences in human beings. Why is one born a congenital idiot? Perhaps because the soul in that body has greatly deteriorated, through its own fault, in former lives. Similarly, one is born a cripple because the soul in that body has needed the experience of being embodied in an imperfect instrument. On the other hand, a genius displays abilities perfected through efforts at self-improvement in many former lives, and one born into circumstances which bestow great opportunities for service, has earned the right to such advantages by humanitarian efforts in the past.

Reincarnation not only provides future chances to correct the errors and failures of the present, but shows how the very difficulties now being encountered may in turn be the means whereby old scores are settled, and old mistakes rectified. When we search for the probable purpose of human life, what is more reasonable than to assume that it is to provide experience and evolution for the embodied entity? Yet the amount of experience available in a single lifetime is necessarily limited. Rebirth, however, makes the entire experience of the human race available to each individual member of it, provides the means for unlimited progress and development. Even if only a slight improvement is made in any one life, the cumulative effect of such advances from life to life can lead ultimately to the attainment of any conceivable goal of perfection.

Since the principle of compensation was thoroughly understood and perfectly formulated by the ancient Hindus, their word Karma has been taken into various modern languages, including the English. It simply means that all the activities of nature are bound together by an endless chain of cause and effect. Every event in the universe is not only the result of a series of causes generated by many previous events, but in turn the way it is met becomes the cause of a long series of subsequent events. This law is absolutely universal in its operations, but to trace all its ramifications would take us too far afield. The operation of this law provides that all the conditions controlling a human being in any given life are the results of causes produced by that same human ego either in the immediate or remote past, and that all the actions of a human being will operate to control events affecting that same human ego some time in the future. This implies that the circumstances of early life are almost completely determined by causes carried over from former lives. During a lifetime, many events are due to causes produced in that same life, and similarly many acts in a life will bring about their consequences before that life is over. However, all the unfinished business of any life is carried over into succeeding lives.

Such conditions affecting our present life, which are seemingly beyond our control, as for example, race, nation, time of birth, physical characteristics of our body, early environment, family relations, education and contacts with other human beings, are the consequences of such past influences. Apparent accidents are not accidents at all, there is no such thing as chance or accident, everything is the result of cause and effect working out according to immutable laws. So from beginning to end, every event in life is the effect of past causes, and in turn, the cause of future effects, and past, present and future, both in one life and in many lives, are linked together by an unbreakable chain of causation.

I realize that many of the foregoing statements may at first thought seem scarcely credible, and some which I am about to make may seem even less so. Therefore you have the right to demand what evidence, what authority, I have for making them. No one will question the great accomplishments of science, but the knowledge, which has given science its great prestige, has all been obtained with the aid of material instruments, and relates to the physical world only. It is quite obvious that knowledge of super-physical worlds can be obtained only by the use of super-physical instruments. Such instruments exist, indeed we all possess them in our inner being, in the emotional, mental and spiritual parts of our nature. Only, in the great majority of human beings, they are undeveloped, and we are scarcely conscious of their existence.

 But from the very beginning of the race exceptional individuals have existed in whom these powers are active as a result of their own efforts in developing them, and these individuals have formed a group active in the accumulation of knowledge and the advancement of humanity. They are scientists in the truest sense of the word, since they deal with knowledge, not opinion or belief, and they proceed by the method of experimental investigation, but their researches are not limited to the physical world.

They are motivated, not by any desire for reputation, fame, wealth, power or any other merely selfish advantage, but solely by the wish to benefit mankind and promote spiritual evolution. So they proceed by methods consistent with these objects, carrying on their work in silence and seclusion, avoiding publicity, always ready to put their knowledge at the disposal of mankind, to the full extent that mankind is prepared to profit by such knowledge, but never seeking to force their views upon anyone. The proof of their existence is to be found in the traditions, the legends and the literature of all the peoples of the world, and in the experiences of those people in modern times who have come into personal contact with them. By reason of the powers they have developed, it is possible for them, while still living in physical bodies, to investigate the conditions ordinarily experienced only after death. It was in this manner that they discovered the facts I am now about to relate.

The first phase of death is the withdrawal of the conscious principle from the physical body. With separation from the physical body, all touch with the physical world is lost. The person remains conscious in a subtle body which remains on a plane near the earth for a longer or shorter period, a period which in some cases may last for years. During this state the person may or may not know that he is physically dead. But sooner or later the higher vehicles of consciousness separate from the subtle body, by a process which has by some been termed the second death. Except for the bodies so cast off, the dead man, if gross or evil, is conscious much as he was in life, retaining until the second death all the desires and appetites which he formerly possessed. But in the state he is now in, the grosser bodily appetites have no means of gratification. This absence of gratification in the case of the gross or evil man causes suffering, varying in intensity with the strength of the appetites Sooner or later, the conscious being realizes that it is distinct from these appetites, and struggles to free itself from them. This struggle causes further suffering, depending in intensity on how closely attached the person was to the lower pleasures of life, and to what degree he identified himself with them. The ordinary good man has but few of these unpleasant experiences.

Purification of the desires is finally completed, and the conscious self reaches a state which may be called the world of realized ideals This is a purely subjective state of unalloyed bliss, in which all the higher ideals and aspirations of the preceding earth-life find full and complete realization. This state, to which the name Devachan has been given, corresponds to the various heavens or paradises as described by the various religions, but it differs from them in that it is definitely not eternal. Since it is the result of a finite impulse, namely that produced by the ideals and aspirations of the preceding earth-life, it must end as soon as that impulse is exhausted. As this occurs, the thirst for life in a physical body gradually returns to the ego with increasing strength, and the ego is drawn, as by a magnetic attraction, back to the earth plane, where it enters into a human body which is born in the usual manner. The particular body entered by the ego is the result of karmic requirements. With birth begins a process which is continued throughout most of the life, the gradual adjustment of this ego or soul to the body in which it finds itself, and its efforts to make that body a better instrument to express its own inherent qualities. The events of the life are determined by karmic necessities, and the course of the life is accompanied by a gradual unfoldment of karmic tendencies. The purpose of life is the working out of these karmic tendencies, in such a way as to provide the ego with the lessons it needs for its own progress and development towards a goal of ultimate evolutionary perfection.

In the light of these teachings, we see that death is not to be feared; it is an incident in the life of an immortal being. It comes as a friend to free the soul from a worn-out vehicle which no longer serves its needs, and to give that soul a welcome period of rest and relaxation wherein it may attain the realization of its ideals, assimilate the lessons of its experiences, and refresh itself for the next stage in its age-long pilgrimage. We see that rebirth is inescapable, as it is the result of immutable cosmic laws. The knowledge of these truths should enable us to live purposefully, above the welter of petty personal ambitions and the struggle for selfish advantages, since we see that each earth-life is but an episode in a process of cosmic duration, the purpose of which is the development of human egos to their ultimate evolutionary perfection.

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