Theosophical University Press Online Edition
Chapter 5: The Processes of Reincarnation
Chapter 6: The Ethical Influence of a Belief in Reincarnation
Chapter 7: Reincarnation as a Historical Belief
Chapter 8: Reincarnation and Human Destiny
Return to Section 1
"Granting that reincarnation is true, where was I before I was born?" This is a question pretty sure to follow in the wake of the foregoing discussion. So far we have said little about death, nor shall we now go very deeply into it. For death is one of the grandest and most important processes of life.
As said before, we are, broadly speaking, a threefold entity, and those three basic elements in our constitution give us a triple line of evolution. Evolution, then, proceeds on spiritual, mental-emotional, and astral-vital lines, with the physical body as the channel through which all express themselves. When the body dies and breaks up, dissipating its astral-vital energies, the process is followed by the gradual dissolution of the whole personality, the mental-emotional being. Yet there will still be something, in some cases a very large part, of the personality which endures. The spiritual ego will absorb into itself all of the personality that it can, that part of it which is of its own nature — its spiritual aspirations, its true and abiding loves, its unselfish and pure desires. Whatever is spiritual in us partakes of the universal divine which animates and supports the cosmos. An ideal of unselfishness, purity, and noble actions, consistently lived up to, transmutes the personal elements which so strive and aspire into the incorruptible gold of spirit. It raises the mortal into immortality. When death comes, this transmuted energy is not dissipated. It is incorporated into its own nature by the reincarnating ego.
This incorporation is assisted by the very mystical experience which takes place at the time of death. In that solemn and beautiful hour after the last sigh has been given, the ego hovers for a brief time upon the threshold of the earthly portal. And then, before its now unclouded vision, there passes a panorama, like the unwinding of a living scroll, of all that has happened, down to the least detail from birth to death in the life just ended. In its dawning freedom the self-conscious thinker follows these life-scenes and can then see the plan and significance of all its experiences, the relation of the parts to the whole, and of this life to those gone before. The justice, the necessity, and the beneficence of its trials and sufferings, with their guerdon of wisdom, are brought home to the egoic consciousness. These memories are now carried with it as it ascends into the heaven-world, called in theosophy devachan. Here it passes a long period of blissful rest. This is one aspect of what Jesus meant when he said, "lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt." And the same thought is expressed in theosophical literature many times, as the following illustrates:
when man goes to his sublime home for the inter-life period of rest and peace, only bliss and high vision and a memory of all that is great and grand in our past life remain. — G. de Purucker: Golden Precepts of Esotericism, chapter 3
This spiritual rest in the inner heaven-world gives the reincarnating entity an opportunity to absorb and assimilate the experiences of its last life on earth. For the same rhythmic cycle of activity — sleep, rest, assimilation, followed by refreshed energies — characterizes not only our physical bodies, but is experienced by all living entities, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual. And of course, correspondingly, it applies also to atomic, planetary, stellar, and cosmic organisms.
So at last the time comes, the hour strikes, when the ego must return to earth-life. But how or why is this? Is it just because the ego is rested and eager again for work and play? Partly, no doubt. But it may prove clarifying to review the chief reasons why the human ego, the thinker, is awakened out of its blissful term of happiness to return to the tasks, the joys and sorrows, of another life on earth. The first of these causes has been described in these words:
Man, being an essential part of the Universe, . . . must obey the cosmic law of reimbodiment: his birth, then growth, then youth, then maturity, then expansion of faculty and power, then decay, then the coming of the Great Peace — sleep, rest; and then the coming forth anew into manifested existence. Even so do universes reimbody themselves. Even so does a celestial body reimbody itself — star, sun, planet, what not. — Questions We All Ask, Series II, xxv
Then the second cause of rebirth was referred to above as the thirst for material life: the hunger, the yearning for the scenes and experiences of a past to which we consciously or unconsciously cling. Concerning this we further read:
it is this thirst to return to familiar scenes that brings us back to earth — more effectual as an individual cause, perhaps, than all else. We hunger for the scenes that we have known; we long for the waters of life that we have drunken of; we yearn for the loves of olden days. Thirst, hunger, there, perhaps, is the most materially effectual secret cause of rebirth, at least so far as the individual human is concerned. — Ibid., Series II, xxv
But there are those, as noted before, who vehemently declare: "I don't want to come back to this earth! I want to go somewhere else where I can forget it all and never think of this world again!" But is this verily so? Those of us who have lost a beloved helpmate or child — must not that "somewhere else" we think of include those loved forms exactly as we remember them? Who has not sometimes longed to be a child again — to "climb into mother's lap" and feel her hand that soothed and comforted? — not some heavenly being in a city of jewels and gold, but just Mother with her understanding heart. A small thing, this, perhaps, and a weakness of human leaning. But it is a very real yearning and illustrates what is going on in most people all the time. Our regrets for past mistakes or unkindnesses, a lifelong dream of a career that was never possible, unsatisfied longings for books, music, travel, luxuries, congenial friends, or for the power to help others — these are indeed energies: somewhere they must work out into their due consequences. These desires make the unconscious hunger of the human heart, and only human life can satisfy them. And they may well be called "secret" because we are so unaware of them as formative energies.
The following will give us the metaphysical side of the matter:
This "thirst" is a composite instinctual habit, compounded of loves and hates, and of magnetic attractions of the hosts of life-atoms composing man’s constitution, visible and invisible, and of yearnings of many types, all of which collect during the various life-terms on earth into the human soul and mind, and which may be briefly called "thoughtdeposits" — emotional, mental, and psychic tendencies — all of which will energize the reincarnating entity’s destiny until evolution finally transfers man’s consciousness as an individual being to higher planes . . . — G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 473
Then there is the other side of the picture — the pull of the life-atoms. This is yet a third cause for the return of the ego to earth incarnation.
The majority, however, of the life-atoms which build man’s constitution are his children; therefore they are psychomagnetically attracted back to the reimbodying ego on its return journey to the new earth-life . . . — Ibid., p. 419
These life-atoms do not all belong to the physical plane. There are different classes or grades of them acting in the three general planes of evolution already referred to — the physical, mental-emotional, and spiritual. These classes of life-atoms manifest each a degree of evolution corresponding to the plane in which it belongs. Life-atoms are infinitesimal, undeveloped god-sparks emanated by the central life-flame at the heart of our universe, and they are the building blocks on all planes of the cosmos: they form the "stuff" of which are built the three planes of evolution just spoken of, and from which the higher beings on that plane fashion their vehicles and are thus able to manifest and express themselves therein. Thus we express bodily actions and functions by means of the life-atoms which make up our body until death occurs and liberates them to pursue their transmigrations. Likewise we have our mental-emotional and also our spiritual life-atoms through which our personal and ego-life express themselves. In thinking of these mental-emotional life-atoms as awaiting the reincarnating entity, we must remember where they have been since the ego passed out of earth-life through the portal of death:
these life-atoms of man's intermediate nature are freed from the overlordship of the monadic ray and form a host of interior planes. All these multitudes of various kinds of life-atoms are attracted to other human beings . . . — Ibid., pp. 416-17
There are of course other causes which contribute to the ego's irresistible urge to return to earth-life, but here we have said enough to indicate the underlying laws or, to express the fact more accurately in the words of Dr. de Purucker, "death and birth are habits of the reincarnating entity."
We come now to the processes by which the ego re-enters existence upon this planet Terra. Owing to the causes mentioned above, combined with others equally compelling, the spiritual ego at last awakens out of its blissful heaven-dream and begins its "descent" earthwards. Its progress is very gradual. Not much is told in the exoteric teachings of theosophy as to the various states of substance and consciousness through which the ego passes in its approach to the threshold of material life. But we know of course that at first these states are psychological, as the ego is manas, the thinking-principle, the creative, formative, self-conscious intellectual element in us. This psychological element combines with the emotional to make the personality which is the distinctive "human" consciousness. Thus the psychological-emotional life-atoms awaiting the ego on the threshold of rebirth are used to make the first garment or vehicle which the ego weaves around itself as it emerges from the higher spiritual realms. Then the lower vital forces come into play — the life-atoms of ethereal or astral and physical substance guided by their formative tendencies ingrained into them in the last life, and further strengthened in these by their transmigrations during the inter-human interval.It is the life-atoms which carry the skandhas referred to in Chapter 2. As already said, the life-atoms are, during their association with the reincarnated entity, impressed or imprinted or shaped with the physical, emotional, and mental trends of the life being lived. What their own transmigrations are after the dissolution of the body at death will be influenced by these skandhas, or attributes of character. And when the life-atoms return to the entity about to reincarnate it is these skandhas imbodied, so to say, in the life-atoms that will furnish the nature and characteristics of the mental, emotional, and physical vestures of its new earth-life. (For a description of the physical processes of reincarnation, see The Esoteric Tradition, 3r & rev. ed., chapter 18, "Birth and Before Birth.")
Again, referring to the process of birth itself we are told:
the reimbodying ego enters into earth-life where it is drawn magnetically and psychically to the family or to the particular human womb where vibrational conditions most similar to its own exist. Its more material force and substance connect psychomagnetically through its own astral-vital fluid with the laya-center of a human generative particle when the appropriate time comes; and from the instant of conception, "the appropriate time," the reincarnating entity overshadows that particle as it grows from conception through the intrauterine life, birth, childhood, into adulthood. — The Esoteric Tradition, pp. 3rd & rev. ed., 483-4
Here we naturally encounter popular theories of heredity, which nowadays is supposed to be the determining cause of all our characteristics of mind and body. Heredity, however, simply pushes a little further back, without explaining, inequalities in human destiny. Why are some people born in the slums and others with every possible advantage? It is such facts as these that do more to discourage the average person than anything else, and they cry out for an explanation.
But when we remember the selective because psychomagnetic qualities of the various psychological, emotional, astral, and vital sheaths, garments, or vehicles already, even before conception, formed around the ego, we see that a reincarnating entity imbodies automatically from its family stream of heredity exactly those tendencies which correspond to its own nature developed in the past. Thus viewed, our so-called heredity is seen for what it actually is, only another name for the effect of creative energies, high or low, generated by the individual itself in its own past. The family and the parents give but the inevitable channel through which these self-generated energies work themselves out as consequences in character, temperament, and physical constitution.
At this point we encounter another instance of nature's creative processes of repetition. For just as the ego on leaving the body sees, as above described, a living picture of the just ended earth-life, so immediately before it reincarnates, this process is repeated. The events of the coming life are then all foreseen by the being standing upon the threshold of human existence. The necessity and the justice of all that will happen in the coming life are accepted by the spiritual ego, which then enters willingly upon a fresh attempt to guide and urge the human personality through conscience and love into the ways of self-knowledge and self-mastery.
It is interesting to remember that because our whole nature is made up of the life-atoms used by us in many past lives, we are practically the same personality of our past life: yet, because all these life-atoms come together at birth in fresh combinations and after manifold new experiences of their own, in harmony with our own past, our new personality is quite different from the one we had grown so tired of when death kindly compelled us to lay it down like a worn-out tool.
Is it not wonderful to be forever the same, and yet forever new — forever developing and changing and perfecting the consciousness-stuff and energy-stuff, and the matters of all grades through which and by means of which as spiritual egos we work?
As to the length of the period between incarnations, we quote again from the same teacher:
"How long a time as an average exists between birth and rebirth?" Usually about a hundred times the length of the life last lived on earth. . . . For instance, if a human being has lived twenty years on earth, he will have two thousand years more or less in the Devachan before he returns; . . . That is the rule; there are exceptions, of course. -- Questions We All Ask, Series II, xxv
This brief sketch may give some idea of the complex nature of the doctrine of reincarnation. And yet, too, it is all so majestically simple when once the basic principles of evolution are grasped. These are: the unity of all beings; the cyclic and periodic nature of all manifested life; and the obligation of all entities — supernally high or elementally humble, which make up the cosmos — to pass continually forward upon an ever ascending spiral of reimbodiment.
A survey of our world of today suggests that the keynote of these times might be appropriately regarded as irresponsible individualism. Anything, almost, which contributes to the "free development of personality" would appear to be allowable. And the results, as we see them recorded in the daily press or meet them in our vain efforts at moral and social reform, are deplorable.
We need a new basis for the ethical education of the individual. Churches, educational institutions, social service measures, prison reform, all are useful: they serve to keep things going. But until the individual child can be trained from infancy to a rational, heart-satisfying philosophy of life, growing out of the facts of nature itself, there will be no constructive, lasting improvement in the moral character of our civilization.
Such a rational and well-nigh irresistible basis for education and living is offered in theosophy. Reincarnation is but one of the many comprehensive and searching truths which it contains. Every one of the laws it points out anew is grounded in nature, and evidence for the existence of these laws is drawn from our experiences of the life around us. There is no science or philosophy in the Western world today, outside of theosophy, which can explain life itself or show an inevitable basis in nature for morals and ethics. Theosophy, if one will study it conscientiously and fairly as one would study chemistry or music in the hope of mastering either, will solve our every problem. It will give a purpose to all living and an individual objective both satisfactory and inspiring.
Reincarnation, which means as already said the periodic rebirth of the spiritual ego as a human being on this earth until it has exhausted the earth's evolutionary possibilities for it — reincarnation is but one aspect of the general law of reimbodiment. Reimbodiment itself is an expression of the universal rhythm of life — that law or habit of cyclic progression in the universe which we see manifested everywhere as ebb and flow, night and day, sleeping and waking, life and death, the rise and fall of the seasons, the birth, growth, and decay of nations. To express it again in the words of G. de Purucker:
periodicity prevails everywhere throughout Mother Nature . . . Hence it is that death and birth for human beings are equally cyclical or periodical. We are no exception to nature’s cosmic modes and functions. How could we be? We are not different from the universe, for we are inseparable and integral parts thereof. We are not out of it nor apart from it, nor can we ever be so. Man cannot free himself from the universe; nothing can. Whatever he does, he does of necessity, but not by Fate, because he is the creator of his own destiny, which, precisely because it is throughout time progressively enacted in the bosom of the universe, of necessity, therefore, is continuously governed by the inherent laws of periodicity ruling therein. — The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 356
Let us now examine what a belief in reincarnation ethically implies. First of all it changes a person's idea of himself. Probably he will think first of his own past. He accepts the idea that he has lived many times and thus must have had a share, no matter how important, or even how obscure it may have been, in building some of the great civilizations of earth. This gives him a sense of spaciousness, of really being somebody, which our modern standardized living and the "born in sin" teaching had almost crushed out of him. Perhaps he has lost faith in religion. But theosophy will give him a deep, inner vision of the heart of the universe, that glorious sun of universal being of which every creature is a ray in its inmost essence. He will come gradually to feel his oneness with this universal life; and so the religious instinct will be reborn in his heart and he will be consoled and uplifted by a sense of union with the heart of divinity.
Later he will look around at his environment in this new light, realizing now that it is just what he prepared for himself in a former life. And a feeling of creative moral energy is born. Why not change it, better it, since he has the power? Initiative springs up in him, and the beginning of a regenerated activity. Next, he will turn to his relationships: his friends and — his enemies. Who are these people? Mere casual attachments? Why, no; of course not. They are his associates of eternity. Even this man he so heartily dislikes — that is because he has disliked him before in past lives, and the dislike has been growing, till now it fairly darkens his pleasure in life. Is this to go on increasing through all his future lives, leading to what dark ending no one can divine? Thinking like this he will begin to see the matter as his own problem rather than one of environment, and nine people out of ten will put all their moral ingenuity into solving it. And he will enjoy working it out. It is quite likely that he will end in understanding and loving him who is now a mere thorn in the flesh; and far from wishing to see the last of him he will be added to the number of those who are to pass onward and upward with him on to the next stage of evolution.
Marriage appears, under the pressure of modern conditions, to be growing more complicated and difficult with every decade. There is a sense of impermanence about it. Young people have no teaching that shows them any way to connect sex life with ethical law. Sex is one of the facts of human existence which seems always to have defied moral law; so much so that many who are really sound at heart have given up in despair before the contradictions involved in this problem. Nowhere else, perhaps, do we drift as helplessly as in this one relation.
But young people who accept reincarnation come to realize that sex inheres only in the impermanent and perishable part of them, the lower personality; and that happiness which is permanent, which lasts in its essentials for always, belongs to the divine, imperishable reincarnating ego. They will be led to test this teaching by study in history and biography, by observation in the lives of those around them; by trying it out in thought and action in their own difficulties. In doing this they will make wonderful discoveries concerning the more enduring aspects of companionship and love which, could they be assured to the youth of the world, would revolutionize society.
Of course, too, young people who believe that they have been together before in other lives and that their present difficulties are the outcome of mistakes in the past on earth; and that if they slide out of the situation now it will only be postponing the settlement — aggravated the next time by compound karmic interest — such young people will have the commonsense instinct to tackle the problem at once and work it out to a happy ending. As for the harmonious marriages we need only observe that in all human relationships and all forms of enduring love, the teaching of reincarnation throws a yet more beautiful and sacred light upon the reality of any true partnership in the higher purposes of evolution. "Marriage when it is real," said Katherine Tingley in The Wine of Life, "is profoundly sacred; then no power on earth can break up the home." But to make it real, the love upon which it is built must have its source in the spiritual nature. So it is seen that a belief in reincarnation, when truly studied and understood, puts an end to all drifting, which is such a prevailing moral weakness of today.
Then how differently do the parents who believe in reincarnation regard their children from the usual parent, who either thinks that his children "belong" to him or looks upon them merely as the chance-born product of animal evolution. For theosophy brings into the home the beautiful light of the essential divinity of man. The child that is expected in the home of those who so believe is not a mere "occurrence"; it is a divine event. The being about to reincarnate is returning from the heaven-world and brings the atmosphere of a holier and purer sphere into the lives of those to whom it is entrusted. Both mother and father share in one of the deepest and most sacred mysteries of life. So they will not only prepare themselves to give their children the highest possible vehicles for their re-entry into this earth-life, but they will undertake with joy that wider preparation for wise and sympathetic guidance of their children through their karmic problems inherited from their past incarnations, of which they are themselves such an important part. How much they can do for their children's and their own evolution in this spirit can easily be seen by the thoughtful inquirer. And one need not do much thinking to understand what such an attitude can mean in the lives of both parents and children. These ideas have been most wonderfully expressed by Katherine Tingley in The Wine of Life, from which the following lines are taken:
For those who partake of this wisdom, and whose will is set to live this life, are fed at the Master's table.
A home established on these lines would have within it indeed the kingdom of heaven. Storms might rage without — trials, poverty, struggles, tragedies, disappointments of all kinds, might assail its peace from without — but no matter how many or how great they might be, they could not daunt the builders of this home, who have heaven within, reflected in a home life which is the expression of the higher law. Their children would be born into the wonder of the new happiness with which its atmosphere would be filled. Before the birth of each, they would make preparations for it in much more than the ordinary sense. They married understandingly, this couple, with knowledge of the laws of life: they were companions, and not merely lovers. A child is born to them, but their states of mind were fashioning its character before it saw the light. The influence of all the harmony, peace, hope, courage which they have brought into their lives was preparing for it a larger, broader path than is common, and an environment fit for a soul to live in; so that it finds itself after birth not exiled in this world but at once at home in its surroundings. — Chapter 4
We understand, when looking into the fundamental laws from which reincarnation springs, that evolution is a moral — a spiritual — rather than a mere physical process. Physical evolution is but the outermost and least important side of the matter. Of what use ultimately a healthy and beautiful body if used for evil ends? And how many invalids, and even people who are perhaps outwardly unattractive, have contributed treasures of inspiration to the world's need! We have only to recall Socrates or Dante to see the fallacy of the popular point of view. It is indeed a well-known fact that physical perfection has never been necessary and seldom present in cases of moral and intellectual genius. On the other hand, how frequently it happens that physical beauty is a source of misfortune or moral backsliding. Character is the spiritual fabric woven by evolution. It is the only thing we can take out of life when we go: it is what we bring back as our heritage from the past when we return to incarnation on earth.
The whole modern philosophy of "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," has grown out of the loss of realization that we are imperishable spiritual beings in our innermost. Materialistic science has educated the present generation to regard themselves largely as highly developed offshoots of the ape family. The demoralizing effect of this teaching found nothing in religion with the authority of life and nature back of it that could counteract its degenerative influence. That was one of the main reasons why the mahatmas started the Theosophical Society through H. P. Blavatsky when this materialistic influence was approaching its apex in the last century. Theosophy has been steadily at work now for over a century. Not only its published teaching, but its potent invisible thought-influence has united with the spiritual instincts of humanity to free us gradually from this nightmare reaction against the superstitions of the past. Materialism has itself been characterized by the great English scientist J. S. Haldane:
"Materialism, once a scientific theory, is now the fatalistic creed of thousands; but materialism is nothing better than a superstition on the same level as belief in witches and devils." — quoted in Questions We All Ask, Series II, i
Theosophy shows the true spiritual ideal of evolution and its practical working out in all sides of life — spiritual, intellectual, moral, and physical. In reincarnation the ethical side of evolution is seen to be paramount, for here justice, moral consequences, growth in spiritual power are the decisive influences. None can develop the best within him unless he grows spiritually. A power gained through lives of effort and used merely for selfish gratification withers, for it will be checked in later lives by the effects in suffering and difficulties of environment consequent upon that very selfishness. And the teaching of reincarnation makes it clear that the best way to make genius and character permanent and divine is to consecrate them to the service of humanity. It is in such wise that the great saviors of history have been able to sway the minds and hearts of whole races.
We must not leave this subject without noticing another important ethical effect of this belief, and that is in the lives of older people. The great majority look with dread upon the coming of old age, for to most, if it does not mean either feebleness or actual physical and mental deterioration, at least it entails being "put upon the shelf." But theosophy shows why it is that old age should be a most important part of life, as the following will explain:
the reincarnating ego is not really fully incarnated until a short time before the physical body dies, which means that there is constant possibility for psychical, mental, and spiritual development almost to the time of death. — G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 484
These words bring indeed a new and heartening message for us all. The wise ancients recognized this truth in maintaining that young men were for action and the old for counsel. One of the tragedies of modern life is the disproportion between the roles of youth and even of middle age — but the truth of reincarnation as presented in the passage above restores the balance. This is yet another case where the teachings of theosophy give back hope and dignity and happiness to discouraged humanity.
We must, however, not overlook the fact that to realize at its best this ideal for old age, it is necessary to so live in harmony with the divine in youth and middle age that old age may be the perfect harvest of this earlier spiritual development. Yet even so, an aging man or woman, meeting theosophy for the first time, will find the practice of its teachings a wonderful creative power to restore purpose and energy and stimulate spiritual advancement in the years that remain.
The whole ethical outlook of a belief in reincarnation has been expressed in the following passage from Man in Evolution by G. de Purucker:
It is through and by reincarnation as a natural fact, that we learn the beauty of the inner life and thereby grow, developing a larger comprehension, not only of ourselves, but of the loveliness inherent in the harmony of the universal laws. For there is back of all things beauty, and bliss, and truth.
What men call evil and misfortune and accidents, and the disastrous phenomena of the physical world which sometimes occur, arise out of the conflicts of the wills and powers of the various hosts of imperfect but evolving entities, one of such hosts being what we collectively call humanity. — Chapter 14
Above all else reincarnation demonstrates that brotherhood is the great reality of the universe. It is the basic and the supreme fact of nature. It governs all things in both their essence and their evolution. The first of all the elementary propositions of the ancient wisdom is that "all men, in their inmost spiritual essence, are not merely in kinship, but in utter and unspeakable union," to quote Dr. de Purucker. And we are also reminded by him that the most fundamental error that can be made is to deny either directly in thought or word, or indirectly in action, this truth of the utter oneness in essence of all beings. It is, we might almost say, to deny the divine source in which we all live and move and have our being. In The Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky has given us the foundation in spiritual nature of this truth. She establishes
The fundamental unity of all souls with the Universal Oversoul . . . and the obligatory pilgrimage for every soul — a spark of the former — through the Cycle of Necessity, in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic Law. . . . The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric Philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. -- The Secret Doctrine 1:17
(Metempsychosis is a word of wider meaning than reincarnation. It refers to the reimbodiment of the spiritual ego in other spheres than that of earth — in the inner, spiritual worlds.) We thus see that all creatures have the same origin in the universal one life, and that each class must work out its own salvation under the same conditions for all its class. Mankind at present is working out the purpose of evolution through the cycle of necessity called on this earth reincarnation. In these facts we see the basic equality of all beings in origin, growth, and destiny. For at the very heart of every one, of whatever grade or degree of evolution, there dwells a god-spark, a beam of the Oversoul or universal life. In the kingdoms below the human, this god-spark burns with but a feeble, instinctual light. In man it has increased and thrown out a self-conscious ray which lights his path clearly when he will let it and makes of him a responsible moral being. In the mahatmas this god-spark has expanded into the light of semi-godhood, self-conscious union with the one life; and in those beings beyond and above the mahatmas, the spark has gloriously flamed out into pure godhood. So on and up the mighty stairway of being which mounts out of the reach of our present spiritual vision and disappears into the glory of the invisible worlds.
The most beautiful side of this teaching lies in the essential responsibility of each range of conscious beings to those beneath them on the evolutionary scale. The gods brood over all planes of being, shedding inspiration and life upon the whole. The mahatmas, their self-evolved servants, are first of all helpers and elder brothers of humanity, and although they have graduated from human life and its lessons and might pass on to higher spheres of evolution if they would, they choose to remain near humanity to foster its spiritual development, helping the gods in their protection and guidance of mankind. From time to time, as already said, the mahatmas send out messengers to teach in a new form the ancient truths of the universe which during the course of ages have become distorted or forgotten. H. P. Blavatsky was such a messenger and the Theosophical Society is the channel through which the ancient wisdom, theosophy, after having been lost to the Western world for almost twenty centuries, is again restored to mankind.
A further development of this aspect of universal brotherhood in connection with reincarnation lies in our own individual responsibility to the kingdoms next beneath us in evolution. In reference to the constant change and flux among the atoms forming our bodies, and in their dissolution and transmigration after our physical death, the following is related to the above idea:
Man's emanations thus build up the animal world; the animals feed on these life-atoms of many kinds; physical, vital, astral, mental, and what not. . . . These life-streams issuing from him give life and evolutionary impulse and characteristics to the entities of the kingdoms below the human, because these subhuman kingdoms are the evolved productions of the thoughts and vital emanations of the human race. — Golden Precepts of Esotericism, chapter 2
Brotherhood, then, is not an ideal merely or just a sentiment, but is a living fact. And all of our collective miseries can be traced to ignorance that brotherhood actually is a law of our being. Not understanding this we are forever disturbing, by selfishness of all kinds, the harmonious development of ourselves and of the human race. It is through reincarnation, checked and guided by karma, and helped by our elder brothers and those above them, that humanity at last learns the supreme lesson of human evolution — that only through selflessness and impersonal love can we achieve freedom, happiness, and power.
The theosophical conception of brotherhood, which we learn through the long course of our evolutionary progress through reincarnations among our fellows, is expressed in Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, where Dr. de Purucker gives us the cosmic basis of brotherhood:
When man realizes that he is one with all that is, inwards and outwards, high and low; that he is one with them, not merely as members of a community are one, not merely as individuals of an army are one, but like the molecules of our own flesh, . . . like the electrons of the atom, composing one unity — not a mere union but a spiritual unity — then he sees truth. — Chapter 3
It is a fact surprising to nearly everyone in Western countries that reincarnation was taught practically universally over the earth at the time when Christ was born. But this is only because we have not been educated to associate this doctrine historically with the Jews or with the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is a still more surprising fact that it was accepted by some of the Church Fathers and prevailed so widely in early Christendom that, as late as the middle of the sixth century after Christ, it was necessary to convene a special Church Council in order finally to suppress it. After that it faded from the intellectual and religious life of Europe and, though held sporadically down the centuries by a sect here and there or by a few great thinkers and mystics, it was not really restored to Western thought till it was reintroduced in the teachings of theosophy. Now, after having been spread abroad for over a century, it is rapidly regaining its position as a world belief.
Reincarnation has always been a characteristic part of the leading religions of the East, as every student of them knows. We cannot even think of the Brahmanical or Buddhist teachings without instantly remembering the tenet as taught therein. In Buddhism, owing among other things to its lack of bigotry, the teaching of human reimbodiment has remained closer than in any other religion to the pure form of the belief. In exoteric Brahmanism it has been greatly disfigured, as seen in one of its excrescences already noted, the erroneous doctrine of the transmigration of the human ego into the bodies of animals.
Many of the greatest men of antiquity taught reincarnation, among them being such great names as those of Orpheus, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Apollonius of Tyana, with Ennius and Seneca among the Romans. We find the doctrine in ancient Persia, also among the Druids, and in the Germany of classical times; while it was a cornerstone of the grand mystical religion of old Egypt. In China it was a part of Taoism, and its hold was deepened by the spread of Buddhism there.
The student may wonder at the varied forms which this teaching has assumed in different epochs of human thought. The following suggests how changes and differences took their rise:
Sometimes, because the background of Esoteric Philosophy was more or less lost sight of, one or another of these aspects rose so high in importance as virtually to exclude the other forms or aspects — a fact which brought about an obscuration of the all-comprehensive root teaching. This historical loss of the fundamental doctrine, with its over-accentuation of one aspect of the general doctrine, accounts for the difference in form of presentation, and for the defects in substance, that the teaching concerning the postmortem adventures of the human ego has taken in the various archaic literatures of the world. — G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 311
Coming down to those periods among the Mediterranean peoples which led up to the Christian era, we naturally think first of the Jews, whose religious ideas have done so much to influence and to alter the true spirit of Christ's message. In the Old Testament we find very few convincing statements even as to human survival after death, at least not in our popular conception of immortality; thereby showing how inadequate are those scriptures, as represented by Christian tradition, to give us a truly comprehensive picture of Jewish thought at the time. For reincarnation was expounded in the Qabbalah, the esoteric philosophy of the Jews, their secret, mystic teaching; so did Philo, one of the greatest philosophers belonging to the Jewish race and a renowned Neoplatonist, teach it. So, also, did the celebrated Jewish historian Josephus. For Josephus was a Pharisee, and he himself recorded that this body believed in and taught reincarnation. (See his Jewish War, book 2, chapter 8, and book 3, chapter 8.)
Dr. de Purucker, in The Esoteric Tradition, quotes a passage from this work of Josephus where the doctrine of rebirth is mentioned, and comments:
There is here no argument about a doctrine which the orator lugs awkwardly into his discourse as being something foreign and new, in other words, a religious and philosophical novelty; but in each case the reference to the assumption of new bodies is made as being commonplace to his readers, and hence as being part of the psychology in which they lived. It is obvious that had the doctrines been unorthodox or strange they would not have been introduced at all, because weakening to his argument. — p. 328, 3rd & rev. ed.
These facts need not particularly astonish us, as reimbodiment and reincarnation in some form were doctrines in vogue at that time, as always, among all the peoples surrounding the Jewish nation. Here and there throughout the Bible, even the King James version shows that the idea was in the background of the writer's or speaker's thought, as when the disciples asked Jesus: "Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). But how could the man have sinned, excepting in a former life, to have been born blind? The disciples evidently took the truth of reincarnation for granted, nor did Jesus rebuke them for this in his reply. In Matthew 11:14, Jesus said of John the Baptist: "And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come," a statement which he seems to repeat in Mark 9:13.
These things were of course unsuspected by those earnest men of the Middle Ages (almost totally ignorant of historical developments as they were) who interpreted the Old Testament according to their own unavoidable limitations. But theosophy calls attention to this aspect of Jewish history so long overlooked.
A true picture of the intellectual world in the early days of Christianity is illuminating indeed. Such a picture can be constructed from materials supplied by many great writers who, though knowing nothing of theosophy (like Legge, for example, who wrote Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity), yet present the most telling evidence that many doctrines, always considered in our education as so characteristic of Christianity, are direct or distorted reflections of the mystery-teachings of the archaic wisdom.
The two principal sources from which early Christianity derived — only to disfigure — its mystical doctrines, such as the Virgin-birth, the passion of Christ, the Eucharist, Apostolic Succession, and others, were the Gnostic philosophy and the Mithraic mystery-religion. These two systems were genuine developments of the primeval esoteric wisdom, and they flourished in the early centuries of our era. Mithraism, indeed, very nearly became the accepted religion of the Roman Empire, as Dr. de Purucker tells us:
The Mithraic religion in the third century had reached such a stage of development that it all but became the dominant state-religion of the then wide-flung Roman Empire. In fact, it had so much that was similar, both in doctrine and in certain forms, to early Christianity that this fact was commented upon by writers of the time, both Christian and pagan. As it happened, Christianity finally prevailed over Mithraism as the dominant religious system of Europe . . . — The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 467
With its dogmas of the vicarious atonement, salvation by faith, and the practices which grew out of these beliefs, Christianity relieved the great mass of people from strenuous moral effort, and lent itself to the designs of temporal and political aggrandizement.
Reincarnation was a leading tenet of Gnosticism and formed an integral part of the mystery-teachings of Mithraism. From these influential and popular sources it was taken over by many early Christians. Several of the greatest of the early Church Fathers, as already stated, taught it in some form; notably Bishop Synesius, and even earlier, Origen and Clement (later Saint Clement of the Christian Church) — all of Alexandria, and the two latter believed to have been initiated into the Mystery schools of their day. It looks as if these wise men were striving to keep alive in the new church a link with the living wisdom-religion. The Manicheans, a mystical sect of Hither Asia in those early days, professed reincarnation, and adopting what might be regarded as the protective coloring of Christianity, had their share in popularizing an aspect of reincarnation. This sect bore an offshoot as late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the Albigenses of Languedoc, who revived the teaching. But it had then been anathema for about seven hundred years and they were, although with difficulty, savagely exterminated.
A long list could be cited of scholars, poets, and mystics of every country and century in Europe who have believed in and taught reincarnation. If the reader is interested, an account of them with quotations in evidence of their belief will be found in a fascinating book, Reincarnation: The Phoenix-Fire Mystery by S. Cranston and J. Pope. The whole subject of reincarnation as a historical belief is a subject worth looking into if only for the surprising and interesting facts, so long suppressed or forgotten, concerning the origin of what we call Christianity. (See The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., chapter 12, "Reimbodiment as Taught through the Ages.")
Our modern point of view in regard to any new proposition might perhaps be summed up in the often heard query, "Where will it get me?" And characteristically, every inquirer will naturally wish to know what the individual goal is towards which this evolution of character through many lives is leading us.
One of the first changes that a study of theosophy makes in one's outlook is that there are no absolute beginnings and no final endings to evolution or to ourselves. There are only relative beginnings and temporary endings. Everything develops by stages, and it is only the forms through which these stages of evolution are accomplished that pass away. Evolution itself is periodic, as heretofore frequently noted. There is an interval of activity followed by a time of rest; then another period of activity with its consequent period of rest. Thus onward and upward forever.
The beginning of our period of evolution as human beings took place on this planet as briefly sketched in Chapter 2. First came the animal soul or vesture and its physical body, built by the lower, instinctively structural energies of nature following the karmic lines of our planetary organism. At a certain point in this process of early development, when the animal vehicle had at last been made ready, the latent fire of mind was awakened therein by those higher beings who had been human in a former great period of evolution.
As one candle flame will light many others while remaining itself undiminished, so was human mentality mystically enkindled by our more advanced, divine brothers. Symbolically we can regard the prepared animal-physical human vehicle as the candle, and this aggregated host of higher beings as a great spiritual flame. Descending to earth, this host of divine beings who had once been human brought mystically to the waiting vehicles the flame of divine mind. The latent faculties of the animal-man were kindled into the first feeble spark of intellect. The race then became truly human — thinkers, and self-conscious. They were then first able to relate themselves self-consciously to their environment. In each one woke up that particular kind of self-awareness which feels, "I am I, and no one else." From that time onward they became morally responsible for themselves, and their evolution passed from the overlordship of nature into their own hands. Henceforth what their bodies became, in what direction their evolution proceeded, was a matter of self-directed effort.
But these newly awakened men, who were really only just starting on their evolution as full human beings, were not abandoned to their own devices. They were watched over and guided and protected for many ages by the same great beings who had initiated their birth as human beings, as is fully explained by H. P. Blavatsky in volume 2 of The Secret Doctrine.
We must not forget, however, that all this happened not by chance or in any haphazard fashion. Our earth is the direct reimbodiment, after its own appropriate period of rest, of a world which preceded it and of which it is the exact consequence or karmic result. All these processes of upbuilding and the kindling of mind proceeded on lines inevitably resulting from the past period of evolution.
In this way we started on our evolutionary course through the channels of reincarnation, through the cycle of necessity, already referred to in Chapter 4. The cycle of necessity, like many similar phrases used by the theosophical teachers, is a poetic yet also literally descriptive name. It has been given to that span of evolution through which every unit of consciousness in the universe must pass. It is entered upon by the unself-conscious god-spark at the beginning of a manvantara or great period of evolution throughout which it advances through reimbodiment in ever more evolved forms and ranges of unfolding consciousness to its final achievement of self-conscious godhood at the end. Of this great spiral, human reincarnation forms some of the most important rounds.
Now, upon having become a self-conscious thinker and evolved forth the beginnings of his innate powers, mankind began to build civilizations. A certain number of those great beings — gods they may well be called — who had been human in past worlds and remained to guide the young humanity, then incarnated among them. They became their divine instructors in the fundamental principles and concepts of religion, art, law, science, philosophy, and the conduct of life. Following its cyclic trend, the human race gradually became more deeply involved in material conditions. The personality, under the stimulating presence of the developing egoic consciousness, grew in strength. It developed a feeling of limitation and of separateness from all other beings, with passion, selfish desire, self-interest, and willpower used against others. Then arose disharmony with the great universal ends of evolution. Man set his selfish will against the spiritual laws of the universe. So "sin" was born. Nature, the essence of which is balance and impersonal harmony, reacted upon him. Sorrow, struggle, and pain were the unavoidable results. War and crime came into the world, and the moral atmosphere of our globe became so poisoned that the beneficent gods could no longer breathe the same air with us. But they did not desert their karmic charge. A race of demi-gods and heroes succeeded them, beings half divine and partly compounded of the lower elements which earth was developing. They continued to lead the different races as long as they were listened to and followed. Later as we pursued the downward karmic spiral, the shadowy arc of evolution, these semi-divine leaders were succeeded by the Mystery schools which they themselves established — great seats of occult learning where the lessening number of spiritual aspirants might still be taught, and initiated into, the divine wisdom of the universe. Finally religion became materialized, corrupt, and bigoted, these Mystery schools themselves deteriorated, and were finally extinguished. Yet still today in certain pure and inaccessible places on our globe there are centers of learning where the mahatmas, our elder brothers, and the successors of these earlier spiritual guides to mankind, keep alight the fires of wisdom and preserve the divine teachings of theosophy, the light of the ages.
This brief glimpse into our past history will prepare us for an outlook upon our destiny, which is in harmony with it. For the goal of our evolution is nothing less than godhood like this. In some remote period of the future we who are now human shall be (providing we are successful in the great spiritual race we are now running) ourselves great beings — gods, returning to our reimbodied planet as helpers and instructors to guide our brothers of the lower kingdoms who are now mounting the evolutionary stairway towards humanhood in our rear. We are at present engaged in developing our equipment, so to speak, for that supremely important task; not only by self-mastery, but by ourselves doing the same thing to all our atoms and to all inferior creatures in our own small way. And if you stop to think about it, how could any other destiny be so natural or so inspiring!
It may be interesting to consider just here what such a destiny implies in happiness and divine self-expression for each of us. By means of reincarnation, leading the learning ego through self-knowledge, self-discipline, and self-directed evolution, our human consciousness gradually expands from merely human and limited boundaries, up through spiritual and divine reaches to a sphere finally of cosmic sweep and power. The following passage will afford us a brief glimpse into what reincarnation has in store for the human being:
Each one is an incarnate god: each one of you is an imbodied divinity: kin with the immortals who guide and protect the universal spheres; and you can find how self-consciously to become this inner god of you, which you yourself are in your inmost. Become it in your daily life little by little, every day a little more. Yearn to be it; yearn to become it; feel it; think of it; ponder upon it. Even the rewards that come from this discipline and this training are past ordinary comprehension.
Pause a moment in thought and realize what it means to have your consciousness virtually of cosmic reach, attaining the outmost limits of our Solar System, and this not only in the physical sphere but very much more so in the invisible worlds; try for an instant to realize what it is to send your consciousness behind the veils of the physical universe — deep, deep, deeper still, into the very heart of being; and there to learn, by becoming it, what is there, by experiencing all that is there in your own perceiving consciousness; and then, holiest thing of all, perhaps, feeling so strongly your oneness with the Boundless Universe that instinctively and with all the impulses of your life you consecrate yourself to its service — a godlike activity.
This consecration also means becoming ever greater in spiritual power, in growth of inner faculty, in inner vision, in inner hearing, in deeper feeling. Following upon this consecration the inner spiritual senses will open and develop grandly. — G. de Purucker, Questions We All Ask, Series II, xxxi
Such a picture leads us at the very least to wonder: What are human beings trying to make of themselves now? Are we, if even unconsciously, trying to work out our divine destiny? Do you know that scientists say that we are using only an infinitesimal fraction of our immense supply of brain cells? Evidently we need a bigger motive to draw out merely the crude brain-mind energies still latent within. Theosophy tells us, moreover, that there are in our brains wondrous centers of consciousness, of reminiscence, and of spiritual vision into inner spheres, that are now asleep. This truth was expressed by Katherine Tingley in the following way:
Oh, that we might realize what books of revelation are piled up on the shelves of our own lives! — Theosophy: the Path of the Mystic, chapter 2
After thousands of incarnations we are now rounding the beginning of the upward curve, the luminous arc of the evolutionary spiral. Human life as we have lived it for ages has afforded countless opportunities for growth to everyone. We repeat and repeat, and still repeat, the mistakes due to selfishness, passion, and limited personal outlook. And we are enslaved in life after life to the same old treadmill of pain, suffering, disease, and death. For man
is compelled to follow the ever-turning wheel of life in reincarnation after reincarnation until he learns the oneness of all things visible and invisible, through the developing of his inner self into intellectual understanding: recognizing that the essence of the universe is the heart of his heart, the soul of his soul, and the spirit of his own spirit. Then, having obtained vision, he is freed from the wheel of revolving destiny. He has attained wisdom and freedom; he has become a master of and in life, instead of remaining a slave of the wheel. — Man in Evolution, chapter 3
There are men and women everywhere, pioneers in spiritual adventure, who are no longer satisfied with any form of modern life or any of its uncertain promises. Every land has its heart-hungry seekers for reality. It was to gather all these together under the mystical aegis of theosophy that H. P. Blavatsky was sent by the Masters of wisdom, the mahatmas, to found the Theosophical Society and restore the ancient wisdom to humanity. Nor need people any longer follow the weary treadmill. For theosophy has revealed the short cut to our evolutionary goal, and this short cut lies through the portals of initiation. This fascinating subject is frequently alluded to by all the theosophical teachers, and is very fully and clearly set forth as to its possibilities by Dr. de Purucker in his different works, from which the following brief selections have been made:
there are in fact in evolution certain short cuts or quick methods of attaining proper results. It is possible to shorten the long, long time that the average human being takes in making the journey of evolution. This shortening of the time-period occurs when a man is initiated; and I use the word in the old, mystical sense . . . of the Greek Mysteries of antiquity.
Evolution, as we teach it, and as it is in nature herself — evolution is the bringing out of what is within: the unrolling, the unwrapping, the unfolding, through development, through growth, of what the evolving entity has locked up in the core of its own being. . . .
There is a way to stimulate evolution, to stimulate growth, therefore a short cut to comprehension, to higher things. — Questions We All Ask, Series I, xxxvi
initiation is the quickening or enlivening of the soul of one who is prepared. It is a quickening process of evolution, for producing a more rapid evolving of the inner man, which otherwise an ordinary man would achieve only after many ages. — Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, chapter 20
the path of light, of self-conquest and growth, leads to the very heart of being, to the very heart of the universe; because, as the inner faculties develop, as they grow and expand under the inspiriting rays of the inner spiritual sun, they receive and comprehend new knowledges, take wider and vaster insights into the secret chambers of Mother Nature. . . . The mind undertakes first to understand; and, finally, knows through immediate perception the realities of the universe, and this is Masterhood; . . . — Ibid., chapter 47
. . . For that, Masterhood, is the end of discipleship; . . . — Ibid.
And the following in relation to chelaship, that is the relation of the chela or disciple to the spiritual teacher who is his initiator, finds an appropriate place here:
These principles of chelaship rest on no vague or uncertain foundation, but on the vast experiences of the human race, which any man or woman can prove by looking within, looking into those founts of spiritual life, crystal clear and pellucid as the water of the mountain tarn; where he may see, as in the beautiful old mythos of Narcissus, his own reflection, the reflection of his own divine self. That can never be done when and as long as the mind is covered with the dust of its enshrouding veils. It is the dust of selfish actions, the cravings of these petty egoisms, the disturbed and untranquil surface of the mind blown upon by the windy gusts of passion, which unfit it utterly to reflect the higher self — the companion of stars. That which reflects the stars, itself must be in a sense starlike; and only that which is starlike in the soul can understand the lessons of the stars. . . .
The giver of inner light and the giver of inner life: such is the teacher. How rarely is this recognized or even known in the Occident today. — Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, chapter 47
According to theosophy the outlook for mankind is full of promise. Although we have so much to learn, and of course there must still be many great tests through which the human race as a whole must pass before it cleanses itself of unbrotherliness and selfish passions, yet the following inspiring passage from Katherine Tingley in Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic will strike the appropriate keynote to our conception of human destiny as glimpsed through even this brief study of reincarnation:
But the crucial point of the cycle is past; the fiercest ordeal is over; no powers in heaven or hell can longer stay the onward progress of humanity. The hosts of light are already victorious. . . . I turn my eyes to greet the rising sun. — Chapter 3
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