“Intimately, or rather indissolubly, connected with Karma, then, is the law of re-birth, or of the re-incarnation of the same spiritual individuality in a long, almost interminable, series of personalities. The latter are like the various costumes and characters played by the same actor, with each of which that actor identifies himself and is identified by the public, for the space of a few hours. The inner, or real man, who personates those characters, knows the whole time that he is Hamlet for the brief space of a few acts, which represent, however, on the plane of human illusion the whole life of Hamlet. And he knows that he was, the night before, King Lear, the transformation in his turn of the Othello of a still earlier preceding night; but the outer, visible character is supposed to be ignorant of the fact.”—H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Vol 2, p. 306
On “Reincarnation” from Reincarnation, a Study of Forgotten Truth by E. D. Walker
Reincarnation is an extremely simple doctrine rooted in the assurance of the soul’s indestructibility. It explains at once the descent and the destiny of the soul by so natural and forcible a method that it has not only dominated the ingenuous minds of all the primitive races, but has become the most widely spread and most permanently influential of all philosophies.
Reincarnation teaches that the soul enters this life, not as a fresh creation, but after a long course of previous existences on this earth and elsewhere, in which it acquired its present inhering peculiarities, and that it is on the way to future transformations which the soul is now shaping. It claims that infancy brings to earth, not a blank scroll for the beginning of an earthly record, nor a mere cohesion of atomic forces into a brief personality soon to dissolve again into the elements, but that it is inscribed with ancestral histories, some like the present scene, most of them unlike it and stretching back into the remotest past. These inscriptions are generally undecipherable, save as revealed in their moulding influence upon the new career; but like the invisible photographic images made by the sun of all it sees, when they are properly developed in the laboratory of consciousness they will be distinctly displayed. The current phase of life will also be stored away in the secret vaults of memory, for its unconscious effect upon the ensuing lives. All the qualities we now possess, in body, mind and soul, result from our use of ancient opportunities. We are indeed “the heirs of all the ages,” and are alone responsible for our inheritances. For these conditions accrue from distant causes engendered by our older selves, and the future flows by the divine law of cause and effect from the gathered momentum of our past impetuses. There is no favoritism in the universe, but all have the same everlasting facilities for growth. Those who are now elevated in worldly station may be sunk in humble surroundings in the future. Only the inner traits of the soul are permanent companions. The wealthy sluggard may be the beggar of the next life; and the industrious worker of the present is sowing the seeds of future greatness. Suffering bravely endured now will produce a treasure of patience and fortitude in another life; hardships will give rise to strength; self-denial must develop the will; tastes cultivated in this existence will some how bear fruit in coming ones; and acquired energies will assert themselves whenever they can by the lex parsimonies [Occam’s razor] upon which the principles of physics are based. Vice versa, the unconscious habits, the uncontrollable impulses, the peculiar tendencies, the favorite pursuits, and the soul-stirring friendships of the present descend from far-reaching previous activities. Science explains the idiosyncrasies of plants and animals by the environment of previous generations and calls instinct hereditary habit. In the same way there is an evolution of individuality, by which the child opens its new era with characteristics derived from anterior lives, and adds the experience of a new personality to the sum total of his treasured traits. In its passage through earthly personalities the spiritual self, the essential Ego, accumulates a fund of individual character which remains as the permanent thread stringing together the separate lives. The soul is therefore an eternal water globule, which sprang in the beginningless past from mother ocean, and is destined after an unreckonable course of meanderings in cloud and rain, snow and steam, spring and river, mud and vapor, to at last return with the garnered experience of all lonely existences into the central Heart of all. Or rather, it is the crystal stream running from a heavenly fountain through one continuous current that often halts in favorite corners, sunny pools, and shady nooks, muddy ponds and clearest lakes, each delay shifting the direction and altering the complexion of the next tide as it issues out by the path of least resistance.
That we have forgotten the causes producing the present sequence of pleasures and pains, talents and defects, successes and failures, is no disproof of them, and does not disturb the justice of the scheme. For temporary oblivion is the anodyne by which the kindly physician is bringing us through the darker wards of sorrow into perfect health.
We do not undertake to trace the details of our earlier stoppages further than is indicated in the uncontrovertible principle, that as long as the soul is governed by material desires it must find its homes in physical realms, and when its inclination is purely spiritual it certainly will inhabit the domain of spirit. The restless wandering of all souls must at last conclude in the peace of God, but that will not be possible until they have gone through all the rounds of experience and learned that only in that Goal is satisfaction. That men ever dwell in bodies of beasts, we deny as irrational, as such a retrogression would contradict the fundamental maxims of nature. That philosophy is a corruption of Reincarnation, in which the masses have coarsely masked the truth.
Granting the permanence of the human spirit amid every change, the doctrine of rebirth is the only one yielding a metaphysical explanation of the phenomena of life. It is already accepted in the physical plane as evolution, and holds a firm ethical value in applying the law of justice to human experience. In confirmation of it there stands the strongest weight of evidence, argumentary, empirical, and historic. It untangles the knotty problem of life simply and grandly. It meets the severest requirements of enlightened reason, and is in deepest harmony with the spirit of Christianity.
For more from E. D. Walker, see: Reincarnation, a Study of Forgotten Truth.
Note: detailed theosophical teachings on Reincarnation rely on terminology explained in the teachings on The Sevenfold Constitution of Man, hence it will be helpful to new students to first study that doctrine.
On “Reincarnation” from the Ocean of Theosophy by W. Q. Judge
How man has come to be the complex being that he is and why, are questions that neither Science nor Religion makes conclusive answer to. This immortal thinker having such vast powers and possibilities, all his because of his intimate connection with every secret part of Nature from which he has been built up, stands at the top of an immense and silent evolution. He asks why Nature exists, what the drama of life has for its aim, how that aim may be attained. But Science and Religion both fail to give a reasonable reply. Science does not pretend to be able to give the solution, saying that the examination of things as they are is enough of a task; religion offers an explanation both illogical and unmeaning and acceptable but to the bigot, as it requires us to consider the whole of Nature as a mystery and to seek for the meaning and purpose of life with all its sorrow in the pleasure of a God who cannot be found out. The educated and enquiring mind knows that dogmatic religion can only give an answer invented by man while it pretends to be from God.
What then is the universe for, and for what final purpose is man the immortal thinker here in evolution? It is all for the experience and emancipation of the soul, for the purpose of raising the entire mass of manifested matter up to the stature, nature, and dignity of conscious god-hood. The great aim is to reach self-consciousness; not through a race or a tribe or some favored nation, but by and through the perfecting, after transformation, of the whole mass of matter as well as what we now call soul. Nothing is or is to be left out. The aim for present man is his initiation into complete knowledge, and for the other kingdoms below him that they may be raised up gradually from stage to stage to be in time initiated also. This is evolution carried to its highest power; it is a magnificent prospect; it makes of man a god, and gives to every part of nature the possibility of being one day the same; there is strength and nobility in it, for by this no man is dwarfed and belittled, for no one is so originally sinful that he cannot rise above all sin. Treated from the materialistic position of Science, evolution takes in but half of life; while the religious conception of it is a mixture of nonsense and fear. Present religions keep the element of fear, and at the same time imagine that an Almighty being can think of no other earth but this and has to govern this one very imperfectly. But the old theosophical view makes the universe a vast, complete, and perfect whole.
Now the moment we postulate a double evolution, physical and spiritual, we have at the same time to admit that it can only be carried on by reincarnation. This is, in fact, demonstrated by science. It is shown that the matter of the earth and of all things physical upon it was at one time either gaseous or molten; that it cooled; that it altered; that from its alterations and evolutions at last were produced all the great variety of things and beings. This, on the physical plane, is transformation or change from one form to another. The total mass of matter is about the same as in the beginning of this globe, with a very minute allowance for some star dust. Hence it must have been changed over and over again, and thus been physically reformed and reimbodied. Of course, to be strictly accurate, we cannot use the word reincarnation, because “incarnate” refers to flesh. Let us say “reimbodied,” and then we see that both for matter and for man there has been a constant change of form and this is, broadly speaking, “reincarnation.” As to the whole mass of matter, the doctrine is that it will all be raised to man’s estate when man has gone further on himself. There is no residuum left after man’s final salvation which in a mysterious way is to be disposed of or done away with in some remote dust-heap of nature. The true doctrine allows for nothing like that, and at the same time is not afraid to give the true disposition of what would seem to be a residuum. It is all worked up into other states, for as the philosophy declares there is no inorganic matter whatever but that every atom is alive and has the germ of self-consciousness, it must follow that one day it will all have been changed. Thus what is now called human flesh is so much matter that one day was wholly mineral, later on vegetable, and now refined into human atoms. At a point of time very far from now the present vegetable matter will have been raised to the animal stage and what we now use as our organic or fleshy matter will have changed by transformation through evolution into self-conscious thinkers, and so on up the whole scale until the time shall come when what is now known as mineral matter will have passed on to the human stage and out into that of thinker. Then at the coming on of another great period of evolution the mineral matter of that time will be some which is now passing through its lower transformations on other planets and in other systems of worlds. This is perhaps a “fanciful” scheme for the men of the present day, who are so accustomed to being called bad, sinful, weak, and utterly foolish from their birth that they fear to believe the truth about themselves, but for the disciples of the ancient theosophists it is not impossible or fanciful, but is logical and vast. And no doubt it will one day be admitted by everyone when the mind of the western race has broken away from Mosaic chronology and Mosaic ideas of men and nature. Therefore as to reincarnation and metempsychosis we say that they are first to be applied to the whole cosmos and not alone to man. But as man is the most interesting object to himself, we will consider in detail its application to him.
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Who or what is it that reincarnates? It is not the body, for that dies and disintegrates; and but few of us would like to be chained forever to such bodies as we now have, admitted to be infected with disease except in the case of the savage. It is not the astral body, for, as shown, that also has its term and must go to pieces after the physical has gone. Nor is it the passions and desires. They, to be sure, have a very long term, because they have the power to reproduce themselves in each life so long as we do not eradicate them. And reincarnation provides for that, since we are given by it many opportunities of slowly, one by one, killing off the desires and passions which mar the heavenly picture of the spiritual man.
It has been shown [see “Life after Death”] how the passional part of us coalesces with the astral after death and makes a seeming being that has a short life to live while it is disintegrating. When the separation is complete between the body that has died, the astral body, and the passions and desires—life having begun to busy itself with other forms—the Higher Triad, Manas, Buddhi, and Atma, who are the real man, immediately go into another state, and when that state, which is called Devachan, or heaven, is over, they are attracted back to earth for reincarnation. They are the immortal part of us; they, in fact, and no other are we. This should be firmly grasped by the mind, for upon its clear understanding depends the comprehension of the entire doctrine. What stands in the way of the modern western man’s seeing this clearly is the long training we have all had in materialistic science and materializing religion, both of which have made the mere physical body too prominent. The one has taught of matter alone and the other has preached the resurrection of the body, a doctrine against common sense, fact, logic, and testimony. . . .
For more from W. Q. Judge, see: Reincarnation (Pamphlet of 11 Articles)
On “Reincarnation and Memory” from the Key to Theosophy by H. P. Blavatsky
Enquirer: But what is it that reincarnates, in your belief?
Theosophist: The Spiritual thinking Ego, the permanent principle in man, or that which is the seat of Manas. It is not Atma, or even Atma-Buddhi, regarded as the dual Monad, which is the individual, or divine man, but Manas; for Atman is the Universal All, and becomes the Higher-Self of man only in conjunction with Buddhi, its vehicle, which links IT to the individuality (or divine man). For it is the Buddhi-Manas which is called the Causal body, (the United 5th and 6th Principles) and which is Consciousness, that connects it with every personality it inhabits on earth. Therefore, Soul being a generic term, there are in men three aspects of Soul—the terrestrial, or animal; the Human Soul; and the Spiritual Soul; these, strictly speaking, are one Soul in its three aspects. Now of the first aspect, nothing remains after death; of the second (nous or Manas) only its divine essence if left unsoiled survives, while the third in addition to being immortal becomes consciously divine, by the assimilation of the higher Manas. But to make it clear, we have to say a few words first of all about Re-incarnation.
. . .
What is Memory according to Theosophical Teaching?
Enquirer: The most difficult thing for you to do, will be to explain and give reasonable grounds for such a belief. No Theosophist has ever yet succeeded in bringing forward a single valid proof to shake my scepticism. First of all, you have against this theory of re-incarnation, the fact that no single man has yet been found to remember that he has lived, least of all who he was, during his previous life.
Theosophist: Your argument, I see, tends to the same old objection; the loss of memory in each of us of our previous incarnation. You think it invalidates our doctrine? My answer is that it does not, and that at any rate such an objection cannot be final.
Enquirer: I would like to hear your arguments.
Theosophist: They are short and few. Yet when you take into consideration (a) the utter inability of the best modern psychologists to explain to the world the nature of mind; and (b) their complete ignorance of its potentialities, and higher states, you have to admit that this objection is based on an a priori conclusion drawn from prima facie and circumstantial evidence more than anything else. Now what is “memory” in your conception, pray?
Enquirer: That which is generally accepted: the faculty in our mind of remembering and of retaining the knowledge of previous thoughts, deeds and events.
Theosophist: Please add to it that there is a great difference between the three accepted forms of memory. Besides memory in general you have Remembrance, Recollection and Reminiscence, have you not? Have you ever thought over the difference? Memory, remember, is a generic name.
Enquirer: Yet, all these are only synonyms.
Theosophist: Indeed, they are not—not in philosophy, at all events. Memory is simply an innate power in thinking beings, and even in animals, of reproducing past impressions by an association of ideas principally suggested by objective things or by some action on our external sensory organs. Memory is a faculty depending entirely on the more or less healthy and normal functioning of our physical brain; and remembrance and recollection are the attributes and handmaidens of that memory. But reminiscence is an entirely different thing. “Reminiscence” is defined by the modern psychologist as something intermediate between remembrance and recollection, or “a conscious process of recalling past occurrences, but without that full and varied reference to particular things which characterises recollection.” Locke, speaking of recollection and remembrance, says: “When an idea again recurs without the operation of the like object on the external sensory, it is remembrance; if it be sought after by the mind, and with pain and endeavour found and brought again into view, it is recollection.” But even Locke leaves reminiscence without any clear definition, because it is no faculty or attribute of our physical memory, but an intuitional perception apart from and outside our physical brain; a perception which, covering as it does (being called into action by the ever-present knowledge of our spiritual Ego) all those visions in man which are regarded as abnormal—from the pictures suggested by genius to the ravings of fever and even madness—are classed by science as having no existence outside of our fancy. Occultism and Theosophy, however, regard reminiscence in an entirely different light. For us, while memory is physical and evanescent and depends on the physiological conditions of the brain—a fundamental proposition with all teachers of mnemonics, who have the researches of modern scientific psychologists to back them—we call reminiscence the memory of the soul. And it is this memory which gives the assurance to almost every human being, whether he understands it or not, of his having lived before and having to live again. Indeed, as Wordsworth has it:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath elsewhere had its setting,
And cometh from afar.”
Enquirer: If it is on this kind of memory—poetry and abnormal fancies, on your own confession—that you base your doctrine, then you will convince very few, I am afraid.
Theosophist: I did not “confess” it was a fancy. I simply said that physiologists and scientists in general regard such reminiscences as hallucinations and fancy, to which learned conclusion they are welcome. We do not deny that such visions of the past and glimpses far back into the corridors of time, are not abnormal, as contrasted with our normal daily life experience and physical memory. But we do maintain with Professor W. Knight, that “the absence of memory of any action done in a previous state cannot be a conclusive argument against our having lived through it.” And every fair-minded opponent must agree with what is said in Butler’s Lectures on Platonic Philosophy—“that the feeling of extravagance with which it (pre-existence) affects us has its secret source in materialistic or semi-materialistic prejudices.” Besides which we maintain that memory, as Olympiodorus called it, is simply phantasy, and the most unreliable thing in us. Ammonius Saccas asserted that the only faculty in man directly opposed to prognostication, or looking into futurity, is memory. Furthermore, remember that memory is one thing and mind or thought is another; one is a recording machine, a register which very easily gets out of order; the other (thoughts) are eternal and imperishable. Would you refuse to believe in the existence of certain things or men only because your physical eyes have not seen them? Would not the collective testimony of past generations who have seen him be a sufficient guarantee that Julius Cæsar once lived? Why should not the same testimony of the psychic senses of the masses be taken into consideration?
Enquirer: But don’t you think that these are too fine distinctions to be accepted by the majority of mortals?
Theosophist: Say rather by the majority of materialists. And to them we say, behold: even in the short span of ordinary existence, memory is too weak to register all the events of a lifetime. How frequently do even most important events lie dormant in our memory until awakened by some association of ideas, or aroused to function and activity by some other link. This is especially the case with people of advanced age, who are always found suffering from feebleness of recollection. When, therefore, we remember that which we know about the physical and the spiritual principles in man, it is not the fact that our memory has failed to record our precedent life and lives that ought to surprise us, but the contrary, were it to happen.
Why do we not Remember our Past Lives?
Enquirer: You have given me a bird’s eye view of the seven principles; now how do they account for our complete loss of any recollection of having lived before?
Theosophist: Very easily. Since those “principles” which we call physical, and none of which is denied by science, though it calls them by other names, are disintegrated after death with their constituent elements, memory along with its brain, this vanished memory of a vanished personality, can neither remember nor record anything in the subsequent reincarnation of the Ego. Reincarnation means that this Ego will be furnished with a new body, a new brain, and a new memory. Therefore it would be as absurd to expect this memory to remember that which it has never recorded as it would be idle to examine under a microscope a shirt never worn by a murderer, and seek on it for the stains of blood which are to be found only on the clothes he wore. It is not the clean shirt that we have to question, but the clothes worn during the perpetration of the crime; and if these are burnt and destroyed, how can you get at them?
Enquirer: Aye! how can you get at the certainty that the crime was ever committed at all, or that the “man in the clean shirt” ever lived before?
Theosophist: Not by physical processes, most assuredly; nor by relying on the testimony of that which exists no longer. But there is such a thing as circumstantial evidence, since our wise laws accept it, more, perhaps, even than they should. To get convinced of the fact of re-incarnation and past lives, one must put oneself in rapport with one’s real permanent Ego, not one’s evanescent memory.
Enquirer: But how can people believe in that which they do not know, nor have ever seen, far less put themselves in rapport with it?
Theosophist: If people, and the most learned, will believe in the Gravity, Ether, Force, and what not of Science, abstractions “and working hypotheses,” which they have neither seen, touched, smelt, heard, nor tasted—why should not other people believe, on the same principle, in one’s permanent Ego, a far more logical and important “working hypothesis” than any other?
Enquirer: What is, finally, this mysterious eternal principle? Can you explain its nature so as to make it comprehensible to all?
Theosophist: The Ego which re-incarnates, the individual and immortal—not personal—“I”; the vehicle, in short, of the Atma-Buddhic Monad, that which is rewarded in Devachan and punished on earth, and that, finally, to which the reflection only of the Skandhas, or attributes, of every incarnation attaches itself.*
* There are five Skandhas or attributes in the Buddhist teachings: “Rupa (form or body), material qualities; Vedana, sensation; Sanna, abstract ideas; Samkhara, tendencies of mind; Vinnana, mental powers. Of these we are formed; by them we are conscious of existence; and through them communicate with the world about us.”
Enquirer: What do you mean by Skandhas?
Theosophist: Just what I said: “attributes,” among which is memory, all of which perish like a flower, leaving behind them only a feeble perfume. Here is another paragraph from H. S. Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism” which bears directly upon the subject. It deals with the question as follows:—“The aged man remembers the incidents of his youth, despite his being physically and mentally changed. Why, then, is not the recollection of past lives brought over by us from our last birth into the present birth? Because memory is included within the Skandhas, and the Skandhas having changed with the new existence, a memory, the record of that particular existence, develops. Yet the record or reflection of all the past lives must survive, for when Prince Siddhartha became Buddha, the full sequence of His previous births were seen by Him. . . . and any one who attains to the state of Jhana can thus retrospectively trace the line of his lives.” This proves to you that while the undying qualities of the personality—such as love, goodness, charity, etc.—attach themselves to the immortal Ego, photographing on it, so to speak, a permanent image of the divine aspect of the man who was, his material Skandhas (those which generate the most marked Karmic effects) are as evanescent as a flash of lightning, and cannot impress the new brain of the new personality; yet their failing to do so impairs in no way the identity of the re-incarnating Ego.
Enquirer: Do you mean to infer that that which survives is only the Soul-memory, as you call it, that Soul or Ego being one and the same, while nothing of the personality remains?
Theosophist: Not quite; something of each personality, unless the latter was an absolute materialist with not even a chink in his nature for a spiritual ray to pass through, must survive, as it leaves its eternal impress on the incarnating permanent Self or Spiritual Ego.* The personality with its Skandhas is ever changing with every new birth. It is, as said before, only the part played by the actor (the true Ego) for one night. This is why we preserve no memory on the physical plane of our past lives, though the real “Ego” has lived them over and knows them all.
* Or the Spiritual, in contradistinction to the personal Self. The student must not confuse this Spiritual Ego with the “HIGHER SELF” which is Atma, the God within us, and inseparable from the Universal Spirit.
Enquirer: Then how does it happen that the real or Spiritual man does not impress his new personal “I” with this knowledge?
Theosophist: How is it that the servant-girls in a poor farm-house could speak Hebrew and play the violin in their trance or somnambulic state, and knew neither when in their normal condition? Because, as every genuine psychologist of the old, not your modern, school, will tell you, the Spiritual Ego can act only when the personal Ego is paralysed. The Spiritual “I” in man is omniscient and has every knowledge innate in it; while the personal self is the creature of its environment and the slave of the physical memory. Could the former manifest itself uninterruptedly, and without impediment, there would be no longer men on earth, but we should all be gods.
Enquirer: Still there ought to be exceptions, and some ought to remember.
Theosophist: And so there are. But who believes in their report? Such sensitives are generally regarded as hallucinated hysteriacs, as crack-brained enthusiasts, or humbugs, by modern materialism. Let them read, however, works on this subject, pre-eminently “Reincarnation, a Study of Forgotten Truth” by E. D. Walker, F. T. S., and see in it the mass of proofs which the able author brings to bear on this vexed question. One speaks to people of soul, and some ask “What is Soul?” “Have you ever proved its existence?” Of course it is useless to argue with those who are materialists. But even to them I would put the question: “Can you remember what you were or did when a baby? Have you preserved the smallest recollection of your life, thoughts, or deeds, or that you lived at all during the first eighteen months or two years of your existence? Then why not deny that you have ever lived as a babe, on the same principle?” When to all this we add that the reincarnating Ego, or individuality, retains during the Devachanic period merely the essence of the experience of its past earth-life or personality, the whole physical experience involving into a state of in potentia, or being, so to speak, translated into spiritual formulæ; when we remember further that the term between two rebirths is said to extend from ten to fifteen centuries, during which time the physical consciousness is totally and absolutely inactive, having no organs to act through, and therefore no existence, the reason for the absence of all remembrance in the purely physical memory is apparent.
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Selected Writings on Reincarnation
- Is Heredity a Puzzle?
- Reincarnation: A Western Study of the Subject
- Reincarnation—The Hidden Doctrine
- Respecting Reincarnation
- The Application of Theosophical Theories
- The Key to Theosophy
- The Ocean of Theosophy
- The Poetry of Reincarnation in Western Literature
- Theories About Reincarnation and Spirits
- Theosophy as a Guide in Life
- Transmigration of the Life Atoms
- Universal Applications of Doctrine
- “Isis Unveiled” and the “Theosophist” on Reincarnation