For our 1985 Special Issue we have selected reincarnation as our subject, not only because of its growing appeal to persons of serious and inquiring bent, but primarily because it offers a sound and compassionate perspective on the totality of our lives. What other theory can compare with the ennobling concept that we human beings, in concert with all of nature's kingdoms, are evolving participants in a timeless cosmic process — a process that includes a succession of births and deaths for every life form.
The theme is large, encompassing the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute, going to the heart of human need. Who are we? where did we come from, and why? and what kind of future may we expect, as individuals and as a species? There is a great deal of confusion in our current thinking, largely because we have alienated ourselves from our source, our god-essence. We need to know with certainty that our roots go deeper than this life, and that a part of us endures beyond death. We need to find meaning in suffering and behind the frightening injustices inflicted upon children, animals, and millions of innocent victims of ruthless crimes, senseless accidents, when there is no apparent cause in this life.
Solid knowledge today about these matters that ought most to concern us is appallingly slight — not because it is unavailable, for there is a fund of teaching and practical wisdom in the core doctrines of the world's religions, in myth, legend, aboriginal traditions, and fairy tale, but because we have forgotten how to apply the theosophic keys that are waiting to be used intelligently and, hopefully, with altruistic purpose.
The concept of reincarnation is, of course, very old, and the cyclic return of the soul for learning purposes and expansion of awareness was as widely known throughout the ancient pagan world as it always has been among Orientals. Several of the early Church Fathers who were versed in Platonic and Pythagorean thought accepted it, among them Origen, who wrote of the soul's pre-existence and its "ultimate mergence with the Divine Unity." In the 6th century A.D., however, a number of his doctrinal theses were condemned as heretical and banned. It seems incomprehensible to us today that a teaching as universal as reincarnation should have been withdrawn from public knowledge and held under ecclesiastical wraps for a near 1500 years. One cannot help wondering what the history of the Occident might have been had reincarnation remained a vivifying element in the Christian message.
Fortunately, although it was tabu to preach the doctrine of the soul's rebirth from the pulpit, the immortal song of bards and poets could not be silenced, and when the Renaissance came to "speed the stars of Thought" (to borrow a phrase from Emerson), philosophers joined poets in openly speaking and writing of intimations of a life or lives lived before. Later, Transcendentalists on both sides of the Atlantic powerfully affirmed this transforming idea, this doctrine of hope and consolation.
H. P. Blavatsky synthesized the accumulated wisdom of the ages in three basic axioms, namely —
It is all a grand process of being and becoming — divinity in action through the perennial flux, ebb, and reflux of the life force, the rhythmic coming into being and vanishing of universes and their reappearance from the deeps of Space. This is the old mystery of the One emanating the many, and the many in the course of ages becoming the One.
With this as background to our thinking, reincarnation is seen as the human mode of the one cosmic process of Divinity manifesting in terrestrial spheres — the Word made flesh of Christian tradition — the Logos seeking imbodiment after imbodiment in numberless forms for the grand purpose of bringing into activity the seed-logos dwelling within the inmost essence of every entity. Is this not what the human adventure is all about: to become that which we feel so deeply we really are, if only we had a chance? Such a world view has power to alter human destiny if intelligently and courageously applied to every phase of our private and public lives. Knotty problems we will always have; for as human beings we are bound to make mistakes all along the way, in parenting, educating, civic duties, in our job or profession. But just knowing that this one life is not the only chance we have lifts a tremendous burden of guilt off our backs. We have always the assurance of another and yet another opportunity to set things right and to bring to maturity ever nobler qualities of character.
As we think, so are we — and what a stunning change in world and individual karma could take place if we dared to hold the vision and had the will and compassion to energize it into action. If we would begin the uphill trek to a saner civilization, you and I must take the first invisible, unnoticed, yet significant step of starting where all genuine change begins, within ourselves. In time the cumulative effect would be to bring about a reversal of the negative and destructive thinking that is the breeding ground of humanity's ills. Inevitably we have been making karma for ages, singly and together and of every sort, and we are meeting now the consequences of our noble and degrading thoughts and deeds in former lives. There is no such thing as thinking or feeling in a vacuum; not only are our individual and national karmas intermeshed, but the world's karma is our karma, our responsibility. We have contributed toward it in past lives, both creatively and destructively. Recognition of this gives us the motivation to heal where there is hurt, to rectify where there is wrong, and to sustain and nourish, wherever we can, the least seed of generosity and caring in human relationships.
With all the tragedy that stalks our planet, rejuvenating influences are gaining momentum and steadily working their beneficent changes in the timbre of world thought. It is a great strength and encouragement to know that millions of people are dedicating time and energy to relieving the hunger, poverty, and disease that are maiming the lives of so many over the globe. Others, equally dedicated, are convinced of the efficacy of the long-range goal of striving to root out the causes of human misery, and to transform ugliness into harmony and beauty in our physical environment, as well as in human souls.
But before all, we must seek to be in harmony with ourselves. This sounds simple enough, yet how difficult we make life for ourselves and others when we get tangled up in knots of anxiety and fear. When all is serene within and we feel the currents flowing gently through us, we are attuned to our higher self and to the unspoken need of our neighbor. We are, at least momentarily, in synchrony with nature's rhythm.
With an ever receding horizon of opportunity before us we can dare to believe in ourselves and in humanity's future, and we won't have to ask when life begins. We will know that life ever is, has always been, and always will be; for a human being is far more than what we see. Inwardly, whatever our current karma, we have a long history stretching back far beyond this present life, an ancestry of soul experience that has been eons in the making and holds the promise of unimagined richness of quality and power to be unfolded in future cycles.
Think what a release such a vision brings when grievous illness strikes. Though a part of us agonizes — for it is heartrending to be able to do so little to relieve the suffering of another — the shared knowledge of the justice and compassionate purpose behind all experience helps immeasurably to ease the pain of parting. Death comes to all, young and old alike. If we have but a few months to be with those we love, we can try to follow the admonition of Marcus Aurelius to "live on the mountaintop of our being." Then when death comes, we will know that "all is well" for the one who must leave us for a while. Certainly the nature of the near-death experience reported so widely today is helping us to reassess our values about death: to see it as a friend, a wise provision of nature, and our children, our parents, and indeed everyone as expressions of the starry beings we interiorly are.
Who are we, and where are we headed? Our contributors have sought to distill from their life experience and study of theosophic principles the essence of meaning in nature's repetitive cycles. Obviously, no aspect of the overall theme of reimbodiment could be treated in fullness. We sincerely hope, however, that the spectrum of thought covered here is sufficiently broad to serve as a stimulus to further reflection.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press)