Today it is hard to believe, but true nevertheless, that until 130 years ago hardly anyone in the Western world had heard of reincarnation or knew anything about it. This hadn’t always been the case, as a belief in reincarnation had flourished in the West in ages past and had even been part of early Christianity until it was officially declared heretical by the Church in the sixth century A.D. After that point, the concept of reincarnation vanished almost entirely from the Western consciousness until it was reintroduced, with an Eastern flavour, by Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement, alongside other distinctly Eastern teachings such as Karma and the Oneness and Divinity of all life.
The truth and reality of reincarnation were swiftly perceived and seized by many and before long the word and the basic idea behind it entered into the mainstream.
In recent decades, meticulous scientific and analytical research, such as that of Dr Ian Stevenson, has proven reincarnation to be a fact. The thoroughly documented findings and conclusions of such respected professionals as Stevenson, backed up as they are with masses of unquestionable evidence, can of course not be explained by materialistic science but nor can they be explained away.
Although an increasing number of people say that they believe in reincarnation, it seems that relatively few are able to adequately explain or talk about it with others, perhaps not having a thorough grasp of what it actually is and how it actually works. Theosophy states that Karma and Reincarnation are the two most vitally important spiritual concepts for humanity to accurately understand. We hope that these ten points will help to bring about a better and also a more practical understanding of this noble and ancient teaching.
This is a companion article to A Right Understanding of Karma which can be read by clicking on the link.
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1. WHAT REINCARNATION IS
Reincarnation means the same thing as re-embodiment and rebirth. It is the human soul returning to the earth again and again and taking up residence each time in a new physical body in order to continue the soul’s progressive journey of inner evolution, advancement, development, and unfoldment. Death is not the end and birth is not the beginning.
The soul reincarnates due to three main reasons – (1) It still has lessons to learn, (2) It still has “karmic debts” which it needs to work off in order to further balance its Karma, (3) It has not yet fully realised its own divine nature or its absolute oneness with the Divine and thus with all life and has not yet rebecome in consciousness THAT which it truly and really is. Reincarnation is a Law in Nature. It is not true that “only some souls reincarnate” or that “reincarnation is the exception rather than the rule,” as some have claimed. It is an ongoing cyclic process and necessity for each soul.
There are three possibilities regarding what happens to us when we die. There is the view of the atheists and materialists, who say that we are nothing more than a lump of soulless purposeless matter and that we simply cease to be, when the physical body dies. Then there is the “one life only” view held by some religions, who maintain that the soul only lives once on Earth and that after the body dies the soul either goes to Heaven for all eternity or burns in hell for all eternity. The religions which teach this concept usually insist that they are the only right religion and that only the people belonging to that particular religion will go to Heaven.
The third possibility is that of an ongoing process of reincarnation. 25-30% of people in the West today say that they believe in reincarnation and it has been a standard belief in much of the East for thousands of years, having its origin in Hinduism, which is the world’s oldest religion. It is also a central feature of Buddhism and other Indic religions. Human beings have the freedom to decide which of these three possibilities sounds the most reasonable and plausible to them.
2. REINCARNATION IS NOT IMMEDIATE
Reincarnation does not happen immediately after death. It is not a case of the soul leaving one body and then instantly entering that of a baby which is about to be born. There is always an interval period, during which the soul experiences its own personal state of “Heaven,” created unwittingly out of its own consciousness and matching exactly the afterlife the person had believed in and expected, during the lifetime just ended.
The teachings of Theosophy refer to this state under the Tibetan name of “Devachan.” This lasts in exact accordance with the amount and force of good or positive Karma that the soul created during the lifetime just ended. When the soul has reaped the full fruit of this good Karma in its blissful Devachanic experience, the process of reincarnation occurs. The rate at which this happens varies from soul to soul and depends on a number of factors but chiefly on the amount of good Karma from the last incarnation and how spiritual and pure the soul is. Some may not reincarnate until hundreds or even thousands of years have passed while others may even reincarnate within the matter of a few years. There is no hard and set rule.*
3. HUMANS ALWAYS REINCARNATE AS HUMANS
There are distinct kingdoms or departments in Nature, which all represent definite and distinct stages of inner evolution. After evolving out of one of these kingdoms and into the one above it, the soul cannot then return to a cycle and stage of its evolution which it has already passed and completed. Although evolution is a very slow and gradual process, it nevertheless proceeds in a definite and orderly fashion.
Having passed from the mineral kingdom into the vegetable kingdom, we cannot and do not revert to being a member of the mineral kingdom. Having passed from the vegetable kingdom into the animal kingdom, we cannot and do not re-enter the vegetable kingdom. Similarly, once we have passed that definite and major mark of entering upon a long series of lives as a self-conscious individuality into the human kingdom, we cannot and do not return to a lower level of evolution through which we have already fully passed and which can have no more effect, purpose, or usefulness for us.
The human soul never reincarnates as an animal, tree, plant, stone, or anything other than another human being.
4. KARMA AND REINCARNATION ARE INEXTRICABLY LINKED
[This section also appears as #4 in the article A Right Understanding of Karma.]
Karma and reincarnation are inextricably linked with each other. You can’t have one without the other. It is obvious that one single lifetime is by no means long enough to reap the full effects of every cause we have set in motion during that lifetime. It is also apparent that some of the aspects and circumstances of our current lifetime do not have their origins in the current lifetime but seemingly in the distant past. Physical incarnation itself is a Karmic effect, since one of the main reasons we reincarnate is in order to deal with our past Karma. To have a proper understanding of Karma, a person must also accept and believe in reincarnation. To have a proper understanding of reincarnation, a person must also accept and believe in Karma.
5. WE DO NOT CONSCIOUSLY CHOOSE OUR PARENTS
It is a popular belief in some circles that while in the spiritual realms prior to reincarnation each soul consciously chooses and selects its parents for its next lifetime, along with other aspects such as the location, setting, and circumstances of the birth and so on. But the fact is that the soul does not consciously choose or decide who its parents will be, nor any of these other things, yet in a certain sense (albeit not consciously) it does choose, because its parents and other aspects of its impending rebirth are determined by the soul’s own Karma, i.e. by causes that soul has previously set in motion when on Earth before, the effects of which must now be worked out.
6. MEMORY OF PAST LIVES
People often ask, “If reincarnation is true, then why don’t we remember our previous lifetimes or at least some details from them?”
The question could be asked in return, “Why can’t you remember the details of what you were doing on this date ten years ago?” We obviously have a new brain in each new lifetime because we have a new physical body. If a person’s brain is unable to help them recall many of their own actions, thoughts, and experiences from the present lifetime, then they can hardly justifiably expect to remember actions, experiences, and circumstances from previous lifetimes, in each of which they had a completely different brain!
The complete and accurate memory of all our preceding lifetimes is stored within the soul. It is obviously not stored within our current brain. How receptive our brain is to our soul is largely determined by the degree of spiritual consciousness and awareness that we have acquired in previous lives. But even in our current lifetime, as we make our life increasingly pure, good, and spiritual, we stand more likelihood of improving our brain’s receptivity to our soul and soul memory.
There are some people who do remember that they have lived before and thousands of these cases have been found to be entirely accurate in the descriptions given of details, names, dates, and events from the past. It is not uncommon for young children, being only newly reincarnated, to remember and mention details from a past life, usually the one directly preceding the current one. Unfortunately, here in the sceptical and materialistic West, many parents and teachers ignore such things and dismiss it as merely being childish imagination.
Remembrances of past lives which occur spontaneously have been found to generally be far more accurate and reliable, when investigated further, than “remembrances” instigated by such methods as past life regression therapy. Many have concluded that the seeming memories brought about through regression techniques are often little more than imagination, contents of the subconscious mind, or details and images picked up from the collective unconscious. We should also be thankful that the scenes and details from our former lifetimes are hidden from us, as once we have seen and known some of them we may very well wish that we hadn’t!
7. ACCORDING TO OUR DEEDS AND OUR NEEDS
The nature of each body in which the soul reincarnates is “according to our deeds and our needs,” in the words of the Upanishads, which are the foundational scriptures of Hindu philosophy. Our deeds of the past have determined the body – the outer shell – which we have to put up with for this present lifetime and it is also the most fitting and suitable body to help meet the soul’s needs for its inner evolution, development, and the learning of its lessons in this life.
Karma makes no mistakes. Our body in this lifetime may be weak, prone to ill health, or even disabled…but that is according to our deeds and our needs. Our body may be inherently strong and robust, allowing us to achieve and accomplish all sorts of things on the physical level…again, this is according to the soul’s deeds and needs for its advancement at this particular point in its evolution.
Some people feel as if they are a woman trapped in a man’s body or vice versa. This tends to indicate or suggest that that soul has spent several of its most recent lifetimes in a continual succession of bodies belonging to one particular gender. The soul will therefore have become particularly feminised or masculinised, depending on which gender it was. We should remember that in reality the soul is neither male nor female.
A very feminised soul will understandably hate finding itself in a male body, as it will seem very unnatural and foreign. But if the feminised soul is now in a male body or the masculinised soul now in a female body, this is according to its deeds and its needs and one of these needs would apparently be to “adjust the balance,” since we can never make real or ongoing process just by being solely a woman or solely a man in all our physical incarnations. The soul has its needs and it has committed its deeds, both good and bad, and now it must progress onward, as painful and difficult as that may be for a time.
8. THE PERMANENT INDIVIDUALITY & THE PRESENT PERSONALITY
It is important to always remember that there is a distinction between the present personality and the permanent individuality. The earthly personality or persona – John Smith or Mary Williams, for example – will never be reincarnated.
But the soul (the spiritual individuality) that lived a life on earth in and through the persona of John Smith or Mary Williams WILL reincarnate, in and through another new personality. So we should not make the mistake of thinking that our soul is identical with our earthly persona. It is not.
Some aspects and qualities of our soul – aspects and qualities which it has acquired in previous lifetimes, when incarnated in previous personalities – are certainly active and prevalent in our life on Earth today but the present personality should not be taken as being a full or even particularly accurate reflection of the permanent individuality. That temporary persona of John Smith or Mary Williams amounted to only a chapter, or even only a page, in the whole “book of lives” of that soul.
The soul, the permanent individuality, is called the Ego in the teachings of Theosophy, using that term “Ego” in its true and literal sense of meaning “I.” The reincarnating soul is the true “I” of our being.
9. REINCARNATION AND THE WORLD’S POPULATION
The world population has risen by nearly 6-billion within the last 120 years and currently shows no signs of slowing down. One of the main causes for this dramatic population increase is that people in general are nowadays reincarnating far sooner, far more quickly, than they did 100 years ago.
The duration of the soul’s time in its state of Devachan in between lifetimes is always determined in part by how “spiritualised” the soul is. The more atheistic, agnostic, or materialistic a person is, the shorter and less clearly defined that intermediary period will be.
It is undeniable that there has been a general decline worldwide in spirituality and in higher thought over the last century. At the end of the 19th century, the majority of people across the world still had at least some degree of spiritual or religious inclination and belief and thus their souls were “spiritualised” to at least some extent and at least part of their consciousness was directed, even if only occasionally, towards higher matters. This enabled the soul’s time in the spiritual state of Devachan after death to be prolonged.
In the West, the fall of the Christian Church and the parallel rise of materialistic science had the combined effect of creating generations of agnostics, atheists, materialists, and sensualists, since there was nothing to fill the gap for human consciousness between blind religious faith which insisted that the Bible is the infallible and literal Word of God and the atheistic proclamations of the scientists, who declared – and continue to declare – that there is nothing but matter and that there is no such thing as soul, spirit, or any actual purpose or meaning to anything whatsoever.
One of the purposes of the founding of the Theosophical Movement at that time was to help plug the gap and present mankind with an intelligent and reasoned spirituality, based on the Esoteric Philosophy of the East. Unfortunately, after the death of H.P. Blavatsky, the teachings and focus of Theosophy were purposely distorted and altered by certain leaders within the Theosophical Society and the degree of respect and effectiveness that Theosophy had managed to achieve in the West was largely lost.
Today the average Westerner is an agnostic, if not an atheist, and he unquestioningly accepts and believes the views and pronouncements of science just as unquestioningly and blindly as his forefathers accepted and believed the pronouncements of the priest. Much of the East is also now heading in the same direction, although not to the same extent.
An atheistic or materialistic worldview naturally leads to a complete decrease in spirituality and ethics and a rise in sensuality and superficiality. So it is not really surprising that a huge proportion of souls, having developed no spiritual inclinations or qualities whatsoever in their most recent incarnations due to the above, have nothing within them at present to provide much – if anything – in the way of a Devachanic interval for them and are thus returning to earth life with disconcerting rapidity.
And the more often and frequently they return, the more time and opportunity they have to procreate again and thus help bring other such souls back into incarnation. As science and sex are the gods of the 21st century, this problem shows no signs of abating. All the major problems and troubling issues which affect the world today are spiritual problems, in their underlying nature, and until spiritual people have the intelligence and initiative to address them in a sane, selfless, and intelligent way, humanity’s problems will just keep on increasing. Just saying “Love and light, love and light” and “We are all one” will not get the job done.
10. THE END OF REINCARNATION
When the soul has perfected itself, purified itself, settled all its Karmic accounts, and consciously reunited and merged itself with its Higher Self – pure eternal Spirit – then, and only then, can the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth be said to have come to an end. It is safe to say that very few of us, if any of us, are close to reaching that stage yet.
The cycle or circle or wheel of birth, death, and rebirth is called “Samsara” in Hinduism and Buddhism, meaning “the sea of suffering” and “the ocean of conditioned existence.” When the individual soul or Ego has finished traversing the ocean of conditioned existence and has attained to Buddhahood (for want of a better phrase) it may then enter into the infinite ocean of unconditioned non-existence – Nirvana.
This does not mean that the soul ceases to exist and is annihilated or “snuffed out” but rather that it is merged and reabsorbed into the Absolute, becoming truly and literally ONE with It. In reality it has always been One with It but it had to forget in order that it might know again.
But greater than he who joyously and unhesitatingly enters into the eternal indescribable bliss of Nirvana is he who, having reached its threshold, turns his back on it and renounces Nirvana in order to be consciously reincarnated on this Earth again and again, as long as all life continues, in order to help and serve suffering humanity. He who gladly enters into Nirvana, thus leaving everything else behind forever, is described in Buddhism as a “Pratyeka Buddha,” a Buddha of Selfishness. He who makes the great renunciation and thus becomes one of the saviours of mankind is called a “Bodhisattva,” a Buddha of Compassion.
~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~
* For more detailed teaching regarding the afterlife and the period between death and rebirth, including Devachan, please see the article Death and the Afterlife which can be read by clicking on the link.
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