Reincarnation
The return to a new corporeal life of a soul (the incorporeal
true self) that had previously been embodied and passed
through bodily death. The idea of reincarnation—that the soul
passes through a series of embodiments—stands in contrast to
the dominant Western Christian idea of a single corporeal embodiment
followed by resurrection (reunion of the soul with a
spiritual body) and life with God in heaven. Reincarnation is
often associated with, but is not necessarily connected with,
transmigration, the idea that at death the soul might pass into
the body of an animal, a plant, or even an inanimate object
such as a stone. The belief in reincarnation was tied to moral
categories in ancient religions, especially the Eastern concept
of karma, which viewed the present life as the working out of
consequences from previous lives. Future embodiments will
also be determined by the consequences of this present life.
One must remove oneself from the realm of consequences
through spiritual activity or be stuck in the endless cycle of reincarnation
forever. The belief in a form of reincarnation is fundamental
to both Hinduism and Buddhism and had some popularity
in the ancient Mediterranean basin. Pythagoras, for
example, claimed that he was Euphorbus in a previous existence.
In modern times, reincarnation has spread in the West
through the efforts of French Spiritism and Theosophy.
Reincarnation in the East
The idea of reincarnation is usually associated with India. It
is found in most of the forms of Hinduism; there are hundreds,
with some variation in the different theologies and schools of
thought. Basically, the soul is an immortal entity that has continuity
through eternity, but falls into material existence and is
trapped in the illusion that this physical world is ultimately
real. Through multiple lives the soul becomes subject to karma,
or consequences. Good karma leads to noble birth; bad karma
to a lower birth, even to rebirth as an animal. The idea of karma
and reincarnation was integral to social organization in the
caste system and thus had practical application in everyday life.
The caste system in turn dictated proper action that was sanctioned
by the rewards and punishments of karma.
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In the mainstream of Hindu thought—which found truth in
the timeless eternal world beyond this world of illusion—while
a favorable reincarnation was desirable, the ultimate goal was
to escape the wheel of reincarnation totally. The means of such
escape was spiritual discipline encased within a renunciation of
the world. By withdrawing and concentrating on the spiritual
realm, one ceased to create karma and dissolved old karma.
Eventually, one could rid oneself of karma entirely and escape.
The essential soul is said to be pure and impersonal, part of
a universal soul, but overlaid by illusions of individual egoism
relating to desires and fears of the body and senses. The classic
statements relating to reincarnation are to be found in the
Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita, which stresses ‘‘The soul is
never born nor dies, nor does it exist on coming into being. For
it is unborn, eternal, and primeval. Even although the body is
slain, the soul is not’’ (220).
Buddhism emerged as a reform movement in Hinduism. It
challenged the traditional Hindu system at a number of points,
including its understanding of human life. In particular, Buddhism
challenged the idea of a substantial soul that existed in
and of itself apart from the body. The rather sophisticated understanding
of the self in Buddhism is often likened to a candle
flame. Obviously, as the candle burns down the flame will eventually
die out. It has no existence apart from its burning. Buddhists
suggest that reincarnation is as if, just as the flame is
about to go out, it finds a new candle wick—a new body within
which to burn.
In the nineteenth century, during the height of British rule
in India, Christianity challenged Hinduism, especially as it existed
in village temple worship. Christian leaders denounced
animal sacrifice and the sexual promiscuity of some tantric
groups, while slowly discovering the sophistication of Hindu
philosophy. One of the responses to Christianity’s invasion of
the country, with the backing of colonial authorities, however,
was a revival of philosophical Hinduism in light of new nineteenth
century Western notions of progress, evolution, and
moral striving.
In this new Hinduism of the nineteenth century, the succession
of lives of the soul in different bodies is regarded as one
indivisible life. The soul uses the experience of each incarnation
as an opportunity for expiating sins in former lives, of balancing
bad karma with good, and perfecting the soul through
a process of evolution so that further incarnations will not be
necessary and the individual soul can be absorbed in the divine
plan. Until then, the body of the next life (whether human or
animal) is shaped by actions in the present life. Moral striving
is the means of gaining good karma. Ultimately, all lives may
be seen as illusions of consciousness. This form of reincarnationist
thought—which called for the good life, rather than the
more traditional form calling for withdrawal from life—
influenced Western visitors to India and was ultimately imported
to the West through Theosophy and the various Indian
teachers who successfully established themselves in the United
States (notably Swamis Vivekananda and Yogananda).
Some religions, like Hinduism, teach that reincarnation is
not always immediate, but that some souls may enjoy a period
in a transitional state, either heavenly or purgatorial, before rebirth.
An idea of reincarnation, though not karma, is also found
in some early Greek philosophy, including that of both Pythagoras
and Plato. It actually emerges in the Mediterranean basin
simultaneously with its emergence in India, around 600 B.C.E.
In the fourth century, Plato’s Phaedrus presents a reincarnation
myth that seems to have been derived from the ophite religion.
A preexistent soul falls from the realm of the gods into
earthly existence, where it migrates from one body to the next
for some ten thousand years before it returns upward to a place
of judgment. Plato also introduced into Greek thought the possibility
of a transmigration of the soul into an animal.
In Roman literature, the idea of reincarnation is found in
the writings of Ennius, probably deriving from Greek thought.
There is no trace of it in Jewish literature, although it later entered
into some Kabalistic teaching. From Greek philosophy,
it came into the Gnostic tradition, and from second- and thirdcentury
Gnosticism it passed to the Manichaeans and Cathari.
The theory underlying the concept of reincarnation differs
from the eschatology of rewards and punishments in Christianity.
Each individual soul will eventually attain perfection, although
some will take more reincarnations than others, learning
by painful experience, in one life after another, the
inexorable laws of karma—of cause and effect. All actions involve
consequences, some immediate, others delayed, others in
future lives. We punish ourselves by our actions, and the very
defects and difficulties under which we suffer offer scope for expiation
and perfection.
The Jewish and Christian traditions were (and largely remain)
inimical to reincarnation. All of the Christian theologians
who spoke of reincarnation denounced it in no uncertain
terms. The only break in the antireincarnationist view appears
in the early writings of Origen, the third-century theologian
who as a young man had converted to Christianity. Before his
conversion he was an accomplished Platonist, and he attempted
to integrate Platonic philosophy and Christian thinking in
his earliest writings, which, if not affirming reincarnation, do
speak of the preexistence of the soul and its possible transmigration.
Origen later dropped his beliefs and in his biblical
commentaries emerged as hostile to reincarnationist thought.
A major controversy involving Origen’s early thought
emerged in the sixth century surrounding a group of people
who adopted Origen’s early writings as part of their larger challenge
to the Roman Empire. Thus it was that several councils
reaffirmed the church’s opinion on reincarnationist ideas and,
in the style of the times, pronounced them anathema. In the
early twentieth century, several proponents of reincarnation,
primarily Theosophists working against the opposition of
Christian leaders, countered with the story of a sixth-century
plot. According to the idea, Christianity had taught reincarnation
until the Roman empress Theodosia forced the church to
edit the Bible and remove any reference to it. This theory shows
a great ignorance of the history of the period and has no foundation
in fact. In recent decades the primary presentation of
this idea appeared in a book by Noel Langley, Edgar Cayce and
Reincarnation, and has passed into New Age literature.
Theosophical Teachings on Reincarnation
The major conduit of reincarnationist teachings in the West
during the twentieth century has been the Theosophical Society.
According to Theosophy, the various manifestations in the
flesh are merely small portions of one whole. The monad, the
divine spark, or individuality, remains the same throughout the
whole course of reincarnation and is truly a denizen of the
three higher worlds—the spiritual, the intuitional, and the
higher mental. In order to further its growth and the widening
of its experience and knowledge, however, it is necessary for
the monad to descend into the worlds of denser matter—the
lower mental, the astral, and the physical—and take back with
it to the higher worlds what it learns there. Since it is impossible
to progress far during one manifestation, the monad must return
again and again to the lower worlds.
The laws of progress, the laws that govern reincarnation, are
those of evolution and of karma. The scheme of the evolution
of life decrees that all shall sooner or later attain perfection by
developing to the utmost their latent powers and qualities, and
each manifestation in the lower worlds is but one short journey
nearer to the goal. Those who realize this law shorten the journey
by their own efforts while those who do not realize it, of
course, lengthen the journey.
Karma decrees that both good and bad effects follow whoever
caused them. Hence, what an individual has done in one
manifestation he will benefit by or suffer for in another. It may
be impossible that actions should be immediately effective, but
each is stored up and sooner or later will bear fruit.
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It may be asked why one long life in the lower worlds should
not suffice in place of a multitude of manifestations, but this is
explained by the fact that the dense matter that is the vehicle
of these bodies becomes, after a time of progress, incapable of
further alteration to suit the developing monad’s needs and
must accordingly be laid aside for a new body.
After physical death, the individual passes first to the astral
world, then to the heavenly portion of the mental world. Most
time is spent in the latter, except when descending into the
denser worlds to garner fresh experience and knowledge for
further development in preparation for passage into a higher
sphere.
In the heaven world these experiences and this knowledge
are woven together into the texture of the individual’s nature.
In those who have not progressed far on the journey of evolution,
the manifestations in the lower worlds are comparatively
frequent, but with passage of time and development, these
manifestations become rarer and more time is spent in the
heaven world, until at last, the great process of reincarnation
draws to an end, and the pilgrims enter the path that leads to
perfection.
Reincarnation and Spiritism
In France reincarnation was advocated before the time of
Allan Kardec by several philosophers and mystics, such as
Henri de St. Simon, Prosper Enfantin, Charles Fourier, Pierre
Leroux, and Jean Reynaud. From an article by Alexander Aksakof
in the London Spiritualist during 1875, it appears that
Kardec adopted the doctrine of reincarnation from spirit communications
that were received by the medium Celina Japhet.
Japhet’s mediumship was developed by one M. Roustan, a mesmerist
who believed in reincarnation.
If the medium disclosed the doctrine under the effect of the
mesmerist’s belief, it is easy to understand how Kardec and his
school could receive ample confirmation through automatists
of his tenet that spiritual progress is achieved through a series
of incarnations, always in the human race, that successive corporeal
existences are the necessary steps to perfection and that
the soul retains its individuality and memory after separation
from the body.
The influence of the Kardec school was powerful and, by the
appeal of its reconciliation with the apparent injustices of life,
it bacame more popular than the teachings of the Spiritualist
Z. J. Piérart and his followers, who denied reincarnation and
relied on the same kind of evidence as that which the Kardecists
produced. Indeed, Alphonse Cahagnet, who kept the earliest
careful trance records in France, was the first to whom the communicators
emphatically denied reincarnation, but admitted
the existence of the soul anterior to its appearance on Earth.
Outside France, the doctrine of Allan Kardec was denounced
by many Spiritualists. In the United States, Andrew
Jackson Davis declared it to be ‘‘a magnificent mansion built
on sand.’’ But he also believed in preexistence and taught that
‘‘all souls existed from the beginning in the divine soul; all individuality
which is, has been, or will be, had its pre-existence,
has its present existence in creative being.’’
In England, William Howitt was the chief antagonist. He
said that the doctrine was pitiable and repellent, and argued
that if it were true there must have been millions of spirits who,
on entering the other world, have sought in vain their kindred,
children, and friends.
A very pertinent remark may be quoted from a published
letter of the great medium D. D. Home ‘‘I have had the pleasure
of meeting at least twelve Marie Antoinettes, six or seven
Marys of Scotland, a whole host of Louis and other kings, about
twenty Great Alexanders, but never a plain John Smith. I, indeed,
would like to cage the latter curiosity.’’
For its psychological import, it is also interesting to note
that at the exact time of Kardec’s death, Home claimed to have
received the following communication ‘‘I regret having taught
the Spiritist doctrine. Allan Kardec.’’ (See Home’s book Lights
and Shadows of Spiritualism, 1877.)
Among Spiritualists, those who favored reincarnation countered
Home. His argument was no argument; reincarnation, if
true, may not necessarily be a universal fact. It may not take
place at once. In The Road to Immortality, by Geraldine Cummins
(1932), the spirit of F. W. H. Myers, communicating from ‘‘the
other side,’’ admits reincarnation as an optional choice and as
a necessity for ‘‘animal men,’’ but not through a series of existences,
and counters Theosophical notions of karma by a fascinating
theory of group souls.
Regarding Howitt’s objection it may be claimed that the
double, in sleep, may establish meetings without recollecting
them on awakening. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pointed out that
since reincarnation for the spirits is a question of their own future,
they may not be more enlightened on it than we are on
our own fate.
Reincarnation could be optional; it could be punitive. It
could be imposed for the purposes of retribution or it could be
undertaken for the fulfillment of a mission. The teachings of
the spirit control ‘‘Imperator’’ through medium W. Stainton
Moses admitted the possibility of reincarnation as another
chance for souls that had sunk so low as practically to lose identity,
and in the case of high spirits who descend with a mission.
The opposition to Kardec’s philosophy in England was not
universal; he had some followers. Theosophist Anna Kingsford
translated many of his books. She believed herself to be the reincarnation
of the Virgin Mary, while her follower Edward
Maitland believed that he had been St. John the Divine.
Reincarnation and Spiritualism
Outside France, Spiritualist experience offered little to support
the theory of reincarnation. ‘‘John King,’’ the famous control
of the medium Eusapia Palladino, claimed to have been
Palladino’s father in a previous existence. ‘‘John King’’ claimed
manifestation through many different mediums at different
times, however.
The experiences of Carl A. Wickland and his wife in obsession
cases did not bear out the theory. They were told by earthbound
spirits, brought into their rescue circles, that on passing
over they had entered the auras of young children and
obsessed them. The children, however, never ceased to struggle
against these invaders. In those cases in which the Wickland
rescue circle enlightened the obsessors of their error, the sanity
of the patient quickly returned as the obsessing influence was
relieved.
In the nineteenth century, however, hints of support for reincarnation
began to emerge. Charles Richet gives one illustrative
case from Les Miracles de la Volonté, by E. Duchatel and
R. Warcollier
‘‘A distinguished physician of Palermo, M. Carmelo Samona,
well acquainted with metapsychic science, lost his little
daughter, Alexandrina, aged five, in 1910. Mme. Samona was
wild with grief. Three days after she saw the child in a dream
who said to her ‘I have not left you; I have become tiny like
that,’ designating some very small object. A fresh pregnancy
was the more unlikely in that Mme. Samona had undergone a
serious ovarian operation a year previously. On April 10, however,
she became aware that she was pregnant. On May 4th it
was predicted by Alexandrina, communicating by means of the
table, that Mme. Samona would be delivered of twin girls, one
of whom would entirely resemble Alexandrina. This came to
pass. One of the twins had a mark on the left eye and another
mark on the right ear with a symmetry of the face, precisely like
the deceased child.’’
Among various automatic writing scripts, Frederick Bligh
Bond, whose famous discovery of Edgar Chapel, Glastonbury
Abbey, is described in his book The Gate of Remembrance (1918),
noticed reincarnation claims in the communications he received
through ‘‘Miss X.’’ The old monks who communicated
asserted that Miss X was one of the early Glastonbury monks
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and addressed her as ‘‘Brother Simon.’’ Neither Miss X nor
Bond believed in reincarnation when the script came through.
The incident is referred to in Bond’s book The Company of Avalon
(1924).
Spiritualist J. Arthur Hill presented his reflections on scripts
received by a Mrs. Cary (pseudonym), a British working woman
of about 50. The scripts detailed episodes involving reincarnation.
The impact of ‘‘Some Reincarnationist Automatic
Scripts,’’ in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
(vol. 38), was weak, however, since no attempt had been made
to verify the historic accuracy of the names. It was also noted
that Cary was a Theosophist.
The Strange Experiments of Eugene Rochas
The feeling of déjà vu has often been cited as an argument
for reincarnation. However, this phenomenon yields to a variety
of explanations. More interesting than the rather vague
feelings of déjà vu are claimed memories of past incarnations.
Eugene Rochas was among the first to explore such memories.
Rochas claimed that certain subjects, if put into hypnotic sleep
by means of longitudinal passes, could be made to retrace the
previous phases of their existence down to their birth and beyond
‘‘into the grey’’ and then into an even earlier state of incarnation.
By means of transversal passes the subject was
brought back to his normal state by going through the same
phases in order of their time. If the transversal passes were continued,
the subject was led into the future.
Marie Mayo, the daughter of a French engineer, was one of
Rochas’s subjects. She passed through various stages of hypnotic
sleep into the first stage of lethargy, in which she was suggestible
for brief moment, into the first state of somnambulism, in
which she was not at all suggestible and retained the memory
of what happened in her preceding state and in her waking life.
She then passed into the state of rapport, in which she heard
no one but the hypnotizer.
In this state she began to exteriorize herself, a half phantom
formed at the left and a half at the right, the colors red and
blue. In a successive state, the phantom halves united; the exteriorization
of the astral body became complete but was attached
to the body by a fluidic cord. In this state of exteriorization,
the astral body assumed shapes in accord with the age in
which the subject saw herself going through the stages of her
life.
At age eight, she wrote her name in Arabic. At that age she
had attended a school in Beirut. Beyond that birth she called
herself Lina, the daughter of a fisherman in Brittany. She married
at age 20. Her husband was also a fisherman; his name was
Yvon, but she did not remember his family name. She had one
child who died at the age of two; her husband perished in a
shipwreck. In a fit of despair she had thrown herself into the
sea from the top of a precipice. Her body was eaten by fish.
All this information was successively elicited. She first passed
through the convulsions of drowning and then went back to her
life as Lina, through the childbirth to girlhood, infancy, the
state of ‘‘grey’’ and then spoke in a previous incarnation as a
man, named Charles Mauville, who lived in the time of Louis
XVIII. He was a clerk in a ministerial office in Paris, a bad man,
a murderer who died at age 50.
Still further back, she was a lady whose husband was a gentleman
attached to the court. Her name was Madeleine de
Saint-Marc. Being brought back to the present by transversal
passes Mayo successively reached her real age of 18 and then
was pushed, by a continuation of the passes, two years into the
future. Beyond this she could not go. She saw herself in a
strange country with Africans, in a house far away from a railway
station, the name of which she could not read. She could
not give any precise information that could be used for identification.
Rochas was also possibly the first to explore the fact that
similar visions occur if a hypnotized subject is moved into the
future instead of into the past. He pushed Juliette Durand, a
girl of 16, ahead nine years up to age 25, when she reported
dying at Nice. After a time, she reportedly was reincarnated in
the future as Emile Chaumette in a family of easy circumstances,
studied for the ministry, and was appointed vicaire at
Havre in 1940.
Rochas’s research soon reached the same dead end as did
most of those to follow. It could never be proved that the past
personalities enacted by the subjects had really lived, even
though they were often very plausible. In some cases, the places
and the families spoken of existed, but the individuals could
never be traced in parish registers or family documents and the
incarnations swarmed with improbabilities.
Rochas rejected the idea that the accounts were the result of
suggestion
‘‘They certainly do not come from me, for I have not only
avoided everything that could lead the subject into any determined
path, but I have often tried in vain to lead her astray by
different suggestions; and the same has been the case with the
experimenters who have devoted themselves to this study. . . .
Are we to assimilate these phenomena to mere dreams Certainly
not. There is in them a constancy, a regularity, which we
do not find in ordinary dreams. . . . And besides, how are we
to explain why physical causes, such as longitudinal and transversal
passes should have absolutely certain effects on the memory
of the subjects between the moments of their birth and that
of their present life, and they produce phenomena which do
not rest on any basis of fact. I believe that we must compare
these manifestations with those which have been studied in the
case of Mlle. Hélène Smith, and generally with all those which
are provisionally attributed to spirits, and in which we see the
true and the false intermingled in a way calculated to drive to
despair those who do not reflect upon the darkness in which all
observers have to struggle at the beginning of every new science.’’
Psychical Researchers and Reincarnation
When Allan Kardec died, Leon Denis and Gabriel Delanne
became the main pillars of the reincarnationist school in
France. The general evidence they relied on was fourfold (1)
infant prodigies, (2) spontaneous recollection of past lives, (3)
exploration of memory under hypnosis, and (4) the claims announced
of coming reincarnation.
They found a powerful supporter in psychical researcher
Gustav Geley. His book From the Unconscious to the Conscious
(1920) was described as a veritable Bible for reincarnation by
Innocinzo Calderone, founder and director of the Italian review
Filosofia della Scienza, which made a widespread international
inquiry on reincarnation in 1913. Geley asserted, ‘‘I am
a reincarnationist for three reasons (1) because the doctrine
seems to me from the moral point of view fully satisfactory, (2)
from the philosophic point of view absolutely rational, and (3)
from the scientific point of view likely, or—better still—
probably true.’’
Reminding all that French thought was by no means unanimous
on the subject, another distinguished representative of
French psychical thinking, René Sudre, ranked himself definitely
in the opposite camp, declaring in an article in Psychic
Research (May 1930), ‘‘Even as I can admit the faith in survival
from the religious point of view, I should in like measure reject
as absurd the doctrine of reincarnation and I well understand
how it is that the common-sense of the Anglo-Saxon refuses to
bow to this teaching.’’
Modern Experiments in Hypnotic Regression
Through the twentieth century, reincarnation garnered its
supporters with little fanfare. Then in 1954 the subject of reincarnation
became the subject of a public controversy following
the serialization of the story of Bridey Murphy in the Denver
Post and the subsequent publication of Morey Bernstein’s bestselling
book The Search for Bridey Murphy in 1956.
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Bernstein was a businessman in Pueblo, Colorado, who had
hypnotized a housewife, Ruth Simmons (the pseudonym of Virginia
Tighe). In those sessions Bernstein probed Tighe’s memories
back to childhood and then, as it seemed, to an earlier life
as Bridey Murphy, an Irish girl. The book stimulated ‘‘come as
you were’’ social parties, pop songs, and a spate of amateur
hypnotic sessions. More important, it launched attempts to
find remaining traces of Bridey Murphy. As the controversy
seemed to be reaching a dead end, the Chicago American published
a series of articles that effectively disproved the claim
that Tighe was really Bridey Murphy in a former existence. Not
only had the evidence for a Bridey Murphy been lacking, but
an Irish woman turned up from Tighe’s early life who proved
the likely model from which the past life could have been constructed.
Today most people consider Bridey Murphy to have
been a case of cryptonesia.
A few other experimenters in hypnotic regression techniques
produced more convincing results. Among these is the
British hypnotherapist Arnall Bloxham, who spent more than
20 years tape recording hypnotic subjects. These sessions convinced
many that they presented actual memories of former incarnations.
Reincarnation and Parapsychology
Renewed popular interest in reincarnation also led to serious
research by parapsychologists, most notably that of Ian Stevenson,
of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry,
School of Medicine, University of Virginia. Stevenson collected
cases from around the world of people, primarily children, who
remembered an immediately previous life, and was able to provide
some convincing evidence when confronted with the actual
locations and people in those former lives. His book Twenty
Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation was initially published by the
American Society for Psychical Research as the society’s Proceedings
for September 1966. It presented similar cases, each investigated
personally by Stevenson on field trips to Alaska, Brazil,
Ceylon, India, and Lebanon. Additional cases were
documented in subsequent volumes.
Stevenson’s research received mixed reactions. Many of his
parapsychologist colleagues, having given up on the possibility
of doing survival research, had moved away from that whole
area of research. A few actively attacked his cases as representative
of biased sources and the imposition of Stevenson’s own
well-known prior commitment to a belief in reincarnation.
However, they remain the best contemporary attempt of psychical
research to compile evidence on so complex a subject.
(See also Glastonbury Scripts)
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