The Path – December 1895

THE DOCTRINE OF REBIRTH — Bandusia Wakefield


The term reincarnation, as used in Theosophical literature, means the coming again and again of the human soul into successive human bodies of flesh, but never into the body of a lower animal.

In evolution the door always closes behind the eternal pilgrim, and, for this informing and indwelling principle, there is no going back. Its progress is like the flow of the blood through the heart. Valves open for the forward flow of the life current in its cycle, but close against a backward flow. Or it is like that of the chambered nautilus that builds itself new mansions as the old ones grow too small, and never goes back; in fact, cannot, for the old house is outgrown. So when once a centre of self-consciousness has been evolved from the Universal Consciousness, and has incarnated in a fit vehicle for its use, the human body, it can never enter the body of a lower animal or function through its organism.

Reembodiment, or change of form, is a method of progress in the involution and evolution of the whole cosmos, but reembodiment of collective life in forms below the human is succeeded by reincarnation of individual thinking entities when the human stage is reached.

We see evidence of design in all nature, a working towards an end, and in this working a cyclic law obtains, alternate periods of subjective and objective life. We see it clearly in the vegetable kingdom. The tree drops its old garment of leaves, the life principle withdraws to the root and dwells in subjectivity till the period of reawakening, when it comes forth again into trunk and branch and takes on a new body of leaves. Not only the leaves, but branch and stalk of other plants, die, leaving only root or bulb or seed to hold the latent life and ideal plan of the plant. But the life and the plan are there, however unmanifested, and nature never makes a mistake in reembodying the one in accordance with the other. In this kingdom a physical vehicle is not dispensed with during subjective periods, but is reduced to small limits.

Reembodiment is plainly discernible in the insect world, where the same old material is worked over into a new and entirely different body but always with the intervening subjective states. We have a familiar illustration of this in the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly. Higher in the scale, transformations in the same body are limited to organs, the informing principle is more developed, and it has no longer a physical body during subjective states save in hibernation, sleep and trance.

As reembodiment, with alternate periods of activity and rest, obtains in the lower kingdoms, analogy would lead us to infer the same for the higher. If it is worth while to conserve the informing principle of a plant with its specific character and reembody it, surely the soul of man deserves as much.

The immortality of the human soul demands reembodiment of some kind, somewhere, and the fittest body at present is the human organism, which required so many million years for its building, and the fittest place is earth so long as earth can furnish needed experience. If the life of the soul is without an end it must also be without a beginning, for that which has one end must have two. A beginning with the body implies an end with the body. That the soul is not the product of the body and does not necessarily perish with it is evident from its superiority over the body, as no stream can rise higher than its source.

The aim we see about us in nature is surely not set aside when we come to man, and since the soul of man incarnates, it must incarnate for a purpose, and that purpose must be the development of all the latent potentialities within it through experience by its contact with matter on the physical plane. This development includes the conquest of matter and the training of the animal man till it becomes a fit instrument for the divine, and implies also the helping of other souls in their development. This object we plainly see cannot be accomplished in one earth life, even the longest; and how many quit the body at birth or in early childhood! If these can complete their development under other conditions than those afforded on the physical plane, then were it never necessary to incarnate at all and incarnation is a farce. But incarnation being necessary, reincarnation must be so also. To acquire wisdom there must be opportunity for all experience, and to learn the unsatisfying nature of material life it must be tested in every phase. Many, many lives on earth are necessary for this; and the desire which first brought the soul into physical life will bring it again and again until physical life has nothing more to offer that can draw the soul.

The theory of repeated earth-lives in which a reincarnating ego reaps what it has sown and sows what it will reap is the only one consistent with the idea of justice. The great differences in mental and moral capacities of different individuals, as well as in their circumstances, can be just on no other ground than that each individual has made his own capacities and conditions. What justice is there in creating new souls without any wish, will or action on their part for all new-born bodies and making these souls with widely different tendencies and capacities, placing some, often weak ones, in the most wretched and vicious surroundings where only strong souls could be virtuous, and others in beautiful, good and happy homes with every incentive to virtue, and then holding all alike responsible for the outcome of their lives? There is no justice in it. Only on the theory that each soul makes for itself its character and conditions is there any justice in the existing state of things. But this theory demands preexistence of the soul and reincarnation.

Neither is there any justice in the theory that some race in the future will reap the grand results of the experience of preceding races, unless that race be composed of the same egos as the preceding or has rendered or will render them like benefits.

The wide divergences in mental and moral characteristics in the same family can be accounted for only on the theory of a persistent ego that incarnates again and again gathering up, assimilating and carrying on the results of all its experiences. Heredity will not account for these differences, for even in the case of twins where not only the ancestry but the prenatal conditions are the same these wide mental and moral divergencies may be seen in connection with great physical similarity. Heredity accounts for the physical likeness and is a co-worker with reincarnation by affording the ego a suitable instrument for its purposes, an instrument which the ego has earned by its past.

Reincarnation and not heredity accounts for genius and infant precocity. Often the genius is the only one in his family possessing his striking qualities in any marked degree. He neither inherited them from ancestors nor transmitted them to posterity, but must have acquired them by his own exertions in the past, and still carries them with him. To call these qualities the unearned gift of a Creator is but to ascribe partiality and injustice to that Creator.

Infant precocity shows remembrance of knowledge acquired in the past. This is true not only of a Mozart, who composed a most difficult concerto at the age of four years, but of less noted persons who at a very early age were able to read without having been taught in the present life.

Some persons comprehend and accept with great readiness Theosophical teachings on first presentation, because these are not new to their egos, while others of equal intellect comprehend and accept with difficulty or not at all. We readily accept those new ideas which are only an extension of our previous ideas.

Great spiritual lights, such as Jesus and Buddha, are no products of heredity with the added acquirements of one life only; but the suffering through which those souls were perfected and made one with the divine spirit was the suffering of many lives.

Reincarnation best accounts for the decay of highly-civilized races and nations and the rise of new ones. The egos that brought on the high civilization of the old race quit it for the new, and then less and less advanced egos incarnate in the old, thus bringing on its decay. By the law of progress through heredity the race ought to go on to greater things instead of going back. Through reincarnation there is real and continued progress. The going-back is only apparent, for all the egos go forward, and only the race made use of as an instrument by successively less and less advanced egos goes back. The instrument, but not the user, wears out.

Only the theory of reincarnation gives a satisfactory explanation of the extinction of races. All the egos in the present cycle of development, having progressed beyond the need of anything that a certain race can furnish, will no longer incarnate in it, but will seek a more advanced race, so births cease in the old race and it becomes extinct.

The reappearance of certain types of civilization after intervals of 1500 years goes to sustain the doctrine of reincarnation of the same ego after that interval in a subjective state. As an example of this note the reappearance of the conquering, colonizing and empire-loving character of the Romans of the Augustan period in the English of the Elizabethan age. See also at the present time in the currents of mystic, religious and philosophical thought a reappearance of the mystic thought, Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism of the fourth century.

The instinctive feelings of attraction and repulsion felt on first meeting people and without any apparent reason, may be due to old relations existing in former lives and not yet severed on the invisible planes. Indeed they are sometimes hard to account for on any other hypothesis.

Peculiar emotions connected with certain things and events point to some unknown former relationship to them.

Dreams often indicate a familiarity with persons and things not known in this life.

Intuitions of former lives enrich the page of the poet. Wordsworth says:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
     The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
     And cometh from afar.

The same thought in varying phrase is expressed by many other inspired poets.

There are many people who have distinct remembrance of former lives, and that all do not remember is no proof of previous non-existence; for we do not remember the first years of our infancy nor many of the events of our later life, yet we do not on that account consider ourselves to have been non-existent. The reason so many of us do not remember is because the new brain we use in the present body is not sufficiently sensitive to the fine vibrations of the Higher Ego to be impressed with its knowledge of the past. But when the lower nature has been sufficiently trained and purified, then each personality will be able to receive the knowledge of the past and be strong enough to bear it. But at the present stage of development, it is a blessing to most of us that we are not burdened with a memory of the details of the past, and many would be glad to forget portions of the present life could the lesson be retained without the remembrance of the mistakes that taught them. This is just what we have from our past lives.

The objection to reincarnation is sometimes offered that it is unjust to suffer for an unremembered past, or for the deeds of another personality. Those who make this objection, however, never think of injustice in reaping the happy rewards of an unremembered past, or of the deeds of another personality. They fail also to consider how many causes of suffering sown in this life are forgotten before the suffering comes, yet they do not for that reason think the suffering unjust. Through all lives the ego is the same; and each personality, though a new one, is an aggregation of qualities from the past. So the suffering is just.

Some people object to reincarnation because, as they say, they do not want to come back, they have had enough of the troubles of earth and are tired of earth-life, or they do not wish to lose their individuality or be separated from their friends or fail to recognize them. All these objections are based on the likes and dislikes of the objectors, as if these were sufficient to change facts and laws of nature. These people lose sight of the common fact in their every-day experience that there not liking things does not prevent their being. But granting the potency of likes and dislikes, one may be weary of earth-life under certain conditions and yet be eager to try it under others. In fact, it is a common thing to hear people say, "Oh, if I could only live my life over again with the knowledge I now have, how differently I would act!" This chance they sigh for they will have.

As for losing the individuality, this is a mistake. The individuality, which includes all that is worth saving, is not lost. It is only the undesirable portion of the being that is broken up. The new personality is but a new putting together of old material which has to be worked over till something better is made of it, or till it is so refined and purified that it is worthy to be preserved.

The objection regarding the failure to recognize friends is based on externals. That these friends must continue to have the same outward appearance is entirely unreasonable, as they do not do this even through one short earth-life. Applied to the soul-plane, this objection would preclude all mental and spiritual growth. In regard to the separation of friends, souls that are truly bound together by pure unselfish love are not separated by either birth or death of a body. Attachments hold over from one life to another and bring the same individuals together in successive incarnations.

Another objection put forward against reincarnation is that by presenting the opportunities of future lives it will make people careless regarding the present, that they will follow evil courses, indulging in whatever gratifies the lower nature. This might be so if there were no retribution, but every evil thought and deed carries in itself the seed of pain. The law of Karma is inseparably linked to that of reincarnation, and there is no escaping the consequences of one's acts. This knowledge, instead of making people more inclined to lead evil lives, will have just the opposite effect.

The appearance of vicious children in virtuous families and virtuous children in vicious families is offered as an objection to the theory that the soul is drawn to reincarnate in a family having similar characteristics to his own. Other factors than this, however, enter into the account. The interlinking of past Karma may be such as to bring together in the same family very different characters. Sometimes strong souls that have a mission to help humanity may be born into low conditions from choice, for by such birth they are best enabled to help all. They are too strong and pure to be overpowered by the conditions and so rise above them. But by their lowly birth and passing up through all ranks they are enabled to come into sympathetic touch with all.

Reincarnation accounts for the divergences in families while heredity does not, although it is claimed that they may be accounted for by reversion. Yet the theory of reversion is disproved by the appearance of a single genius in an obscure family; for had any of his like appeared before in that family it would not have been obscure.

It is claimed that reincarnation sets aside heredity, or that heredity invalidates reincarnation, neither of which is true; for reincarnation works with heredity, the latter affording the suitable physical environment for the returning ego.

Increase of population is put forward as an objection to reincarnation, yet it is not positively known that the population of the earth increases, there being no statistics of population in many parts of it; and even if the population should increase there are so many more egos out of incarnation than in it that the increase could easily be accounted for without affecting the theory of reincarnation.

Reincarnation is believed in by the majority of the human race. It is the belief of Brahmans, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sufi Mohammedans and many of the tribes of North and South America, among them the Mayas. It is held by some Jews and Christians and by most of the members of the Theosophical Society of whatever religion. As a theory reincarnation is becoming less strange and unreasonable to the western mind, and it certainly best accounts for known existing facts.

This doctrine is very clearly taught in the Bhagavad-Gita, which is accepted by both Brahmans and Buddhists, and also in the Upanishads. It belongs to the ancient religious teachings of the Egyptians. The "Song of Resurrection" by Isis is a song of rebirth. It is taught in the Talmud, the Zohar and Kether Malkuth, and in the Old and New Testaments. Micah prophecies the coming again of one whose "going-forth" had been from everlasting (v. 2).

Jesus asked his disciples "Whom do men say that I am?" And they answered, "Some say thou art John the Baptist, some Elias, and others Jeremias or one of the prophets" (Matthew, xvi, 13). So it was thought that any of these might come again. And the same belief on the part of his own chosen disciples is implied by the question, "Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John, ix, 2), which implies the possibility of his sinning before birth. And Jesus said nothing against such a belief in either case although he says of himself, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth" (John, xviii, 37). On the contrary he declares that, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John, viii), and that John the Baptist was Elias come again (Matthew, xi, 14). In Revelation (iii, 12,) is the statement, "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the house of my God, and he shall go no more out," which implies that he had been out before and would go out again unless he overcame. In John (iii, 13) is the passage, "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven," which teaches preexistence unless heaven has been and is devoid of men. There are numerous other passages supporting the teaching of reincarnation to be found in the Christian Bible.

A general knowledge in the western world of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation would be a very beneficial influence. It would greatly increase the sense of moral responsibility and consequently the moral character of the people. It would change the attitude of the rich and the poor towards each other for the better. The rich would feel themselves accountable for making the best use of their wealth, would know that if they practised injustice and unkindness in their treatment of the poor and had no sympathy for their suffering, that they might expect sometime to be poor themselves and suffer like treatment to learn a needed lesson. So even from a selfish point of view there would be a strong incentive to brotherly action. A thorough assimilation of these doctrines would strike deeper root than this and would really make people less selfish. On the part of the poor these teachings would enable them to see that they themselves were the real makers of their hard lot, that they had earned it by their own past or that they had chosen it for their own soul growth.

This knowledge would help them to bear with patience what would otherwise be revolted against as great injustice, and it would take away their hate and envy of the rich, while at the same time the rich would be more kind to them, so that a general brotherly feeling would arise. A wholesome teaching is this:

Who toiled a slave may come anew a prince,
     For gentle worthiness and merit won;
Who ruled a king may wander earth in rags
     For things done and undone.

The Path