Writing of reincarnation, Lessing, dramatist and philosopher of the eighteenth century enlightenment in Germany, summed up the meaning of this doctrine and its most powerful supporting argument by addressing four simple questions:
Why should not every individual man have existed more than once upon this world? Why should I not come back as often as I am capable of acquiring fresh knowledge? Is this hypothesis so laughable merely because it is the oldest? Because the human understanding, before the sophistries of the schools had dissipated and debilitated it, lighted upon it at once? (The Education of the Human Race.)
But, if reincarnation is the natural conclusion of the unprejudiced intellect, why has it been all but obliterated in Western thought — hidden except to the few? The selfishly biased disposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy serves as but partial answer. If reincarnation be a law of nature, easily discernible, how could such opposition as that of Catholicism arise? Earnest theosophists today feel that the teaching of reincarnation is for the masses, that all men will be helped through its promulgation to find and feel a vital purpose in life. Yet in ages past, even among such enlightened cultures as the most ancient Greeks and Egyptians, the full truths of reincarnation were reserved for those who had won the right of initiation into the Mystery Religions. Why? This question will be asked by the whole world of thinking men if the hypothesis of reincarnation becomes popularly considered, as it may before long, aided by the necessities of both science and religion, and further spread by efforts of Theosophists. But when and if such a conclusion is forced to the intellectual foreground “by the mighty onrush of facts,” as predicted by H. P. Blavatsky, it should come pari passu with the general recognition of impersonal law. Stated in a telling sentence from the Secret Doctrine: “Evolution in general, events, mankind and everything else in Nature proceed in cycles.”
Every cycle has its limitations, especially in respect to the judicious distribution of Occult knowledge. Moreover, such knowledge cannot be vicariously acquired, but must be sought out and striven for. If there are indeed beings far above “human” stature in respect to understanding of nature’s mysteries and man’s powers, it can be easily seen that they would demonstrate their wisdom by refraining from attempts to “force” the evolution of their less progressed brothers. Knowledge of occult powers today would make a mad world more mad, unless there were first, firmly engrained, a philosophy which demanded beneficial use of such acquirements. “As above, so below.” Just as does the elementary instructor of the school, these greatest teachers must confine themselves to presentation of knowledge at times when it is needed and can be used to benefit.
It may, however, be difficult for many to see why the doctrine of reincarnation was not specifically emphasized in the exoteric philosophy of Gautama Buddha; and why Jesus of Nazareth seems to have taught it chiefly by implication, if it indeed represents fundamental truth. And why was true knowledge of this doctrine in Egypt and Greece reserved for initiates?
Let us consider the possibility that this teaching can never acquire real significance to the individual before preliminary psychological steps are made. What could reincarnation have meant to the man who was conscious only of personal desires and the material aspect of his nature? If memory of past lives is impacted in the spiritual nature, in character attributes of soul learning, what would the teaching that the spiritual essence of man is continuous have signified to one who was entirely unaware of his own divine presence? From this viewpoint reincarnation could not be comprehended — it could not be accepted save as distorted into an emotional belief holding out promise of further sensual enjoyment.
The first step of every great religious and philosophical reformer has been to attempt to awaken man’s consciousness of inner divinity. So it was with Buddha, who came to reform the materialistic Brahmanical religions which had clouded over the simple truths of spirit. He strove to re-awaken memories “impacted in the imperishable center of man’s nature” — memories of those great teachers who personified spiritual knowledge to infant humanity on this earth. Buddha perceived that the nature of the soul must once have been known to every man, and that the fire of spiritual understanding must be rekindled.
The legends of every civilization picture man’s long pilgrimage in search of his own soul. The story of Lucifer, “the fallen prince,” is an allegory of man’s descent into matter at the beginning of present human evolution. Lucifer, the mind-being, acquired a dual nature with the addition to the soul vesture of the many degrees of lower intelligence making up his physical and emotional instruments and dependent upon him for upward impulse on the ladder of being. It was easy for beings of power to exploit and indulge these lower lives, and few souls there were, according to ancient legend, who could with unfaltering steps march the highroad of further evolution without first losing themselves in the unreasoning sensual enjoyments of the material world. Since Lucifer fell into the slumber of “spiritual disgrace,” in accordance with the probabilities arrayed by the nature of material evolution, he has struggled to awaken and find his other self — the being within of high resolve who possesses naught but spiritual desire and the power to control and use intelligently the forms of life entrusted to his care.
Before, then, the cycle could turn for the masses of egos — turn upward to the hour for understanding the real meaning of reincarnation — they required help by precept and example to feel again the strength of their divine potentiality. The reformer Jesus came at a time of great limitation to the “lost sheep of Israel,” with the simplest of ethics forming implicitly a religion of universal brotherhood. He assented to reincarnation, according to the stories of Matthew and other scribes, but did not dwell on a doctrine that could not yet be understood in full significance. So with Plato, greatest of the early Western Initiates, who left the profound teachings concerning the cyclic rebirth of souls in the form of myths and allegories, while his external emphasis lay chiefly on the practical ethics of social philosophy. Here, too, was work of preparation for the day when the central doctrine of reincarnation might be grasped and understood in its entirety.
Since Plato, many of his followers continued this same preparation in accordance with the possibilities and needs of their times. Even through that dark intermediary cycle called the Middle Ages there were those who taught the deserving few the doctrine of future and former lives. The method, perhaps, was different from the instruction offered in the Grecian and Egyptian mysteries, but the principle was the same. Those who were ready received. Often unconsciously great poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley and Browning re-presented, through their moments of intuitive vision, this central doctrine. With the Enlightenment in Germany and England, reincarnation was again offered in a more intellectual and rational form. Lessing, Herder, Goethe and Schopenhauer in northern Europe were among the able defenders of the doctrine, while in England, Glanvil, Cudworth and numerous other Platonists laid the basis for a further awakening in the future. But of all these times it might be said that the cycle had not yet turned to the all-important point where science and theology had approached closely enough to demand of themselves a reasoned synthesis which might be the basis for mutual agreement. The cycle did turn during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as evidenced both by the beginnings of a new science and religion within the old, and the present Theosophical Movement. Yet even with the inauguration of the Theosophical Movement of the last century, H. P. Blavatsky wrote, “No great truth was ever accepted a priori, and generally a century or two passed before it began to glimmer in the human consciousness as a possible verity, except in such cases as the positive discovery of the thing claimed as a fact.”
But now a time has come, if we are to believe the custodians of Theosophy, when, in the words of William Q. Judge: “The day of man’s childhood as an immortal being has passed away. He is now grown up, his mind arrived at the point where it must grow, and when, if knowledge be refused, this violation of our being will result in the grossest and vilest superstition or the most appalling materialism.”
With unmistakable evidence in support of this statement on every hand, it is small wonder that theosophists feel obliged to lead a crusade of ideas by all the means at their disposal. Further, the converging courses of both science and religion in recent years indicate that the cornerstone of the new philosophy must be the idea of reincarnation. The doctrine of reincarnation, whether it be casually regarded as a temporary hypothesis or accepted as fundamental truth, can offer to man a measure of new life and a growth of mind at a time when the only alternative is destruction and despair. Before the turn of the century William Q. Judge called upon theosophists to fulfill their unique duty to humanity by defending and promulgating this “most important of all theosophical teachings.” The esoteric had become exoteric. The time has arrived when, under natural evolutionary law, the “hidden doctrine” can remain hidden no more, but must enter the arena of modern thought and meet openly both its friends and enemies.