No-one will argue or attempt to deny that it was through H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement that the concept and teaching of reincarnation was introduced to the Western world in modern times.
Yet sometimes it is said, both by Theosophists and others, that HPB initially denied the truth of reincarnation and that she wrote against it in her first book “Isis Unveiled” which was published in 1877. According to these individuals, she changed her views and beliefs about things as time went on and only later accepted and began to teach the doctrine of reincarnation.
Such ill-informed individuals have obviously never made a close or careful study of her work and teachings, or they would see that her teachings were entirely consistent and unchanging throughout, from the moment she appeared on the public scene with the founding of the Theosophical Movement in 1875 and up until her departure from physical life in 1891.
Experience shows that the majority of those who claim that “Blavatsky taught against reincarnation in “Isis Unveiled”,” have never even read the book and are merely content to repeat the ignorant assertions of others, some of whom have an ulterior motive to attempt to depreciate and belittle HPB and turn people’s minds away from the vitally important mass of teachings she has given out to the world.
The misunderstanding in this regard is chiefly the result of inattentive reading and a failure to familiarise oneself with specific terminology. HPB herself wrote two articles defending herself against the charges of having denied reincarnation and demonstrating the contrary. These are “”Isis Unveiled” and the “Theosophist” on Reincarnation”, published in 1882, and “Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits,” published in 1886. If Theosophists would only go to what HPB herself has written, they would soon realise the groundlessness of such claims.
She begins “Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits” by stating categorically that she is “a Buddhist by profession of faith” and “a professed follower of Buddhism years before Isis was written.” Those who may doubt or question this need only turn to HPB’s letter of 1876 to the American Platonist Dr Alexander Wilder, in which she writes, “I am a Thibetian [i.e. Tibetan] buddhist, you know, and pledged myself to keep certain things secret.” Those letters written by the Master K.H. and the Master M. themselves make it clear that They – HPB’s direct Gurus and Instructors – and indeed the whole Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood of which she is a part – are distinctly and openly Buddhist.
Those who may be interested in knowing what particular type or expression of Buddhism the Masters adhere to can discover more in the articles Alaya – The Universal Soul and Self and Non-Self in Buddhism and Theosophy.
The reason she affirms her Buddhism in beginning this article is to show the strangeness of accusing “a Buddhist by profession of faith of denying reincarnation, hence also by implication – Karma,” seeing as the Law of Karma “is the very corner-stone of Esoteric philosophy and Eastern religions; it is the grand and one pillar on which hangs the whole philosophy of rebirths, and, once the latter is denied, the whole doctrine of Karma falls into meaningless verbiage.”
She goes on to quote direct from “Isis Unveiled” in order to show that reincarnation is in fact specifically taught there. For example, on p. 346 of Vol. 1, she has written that “The cause of reincarnation is ignorance of our senses, and the idea that there is any reality in the world, anything except abstract existence,” and goes on to say that “Like the revolutions of a wheel, there is a regular succession of death and birth, the moral cause of which is the cleaving to existing objects, while the instrumental cause is karma (the power which controls the universe, prompting it to activity), merit and demerit.”
It is true that the subject of reincarnation is barely mentioned at all in the earlier writings of HPB or, when touched upon, is dealt with in a brief and somewhat vague manner. Although present in the Theosophical teachings right from the start, reincarnation and Karma did not assume their later place of central importance and extensive emphasis until after the first seven year cycle of the Theosophical Movement had been successfully completed.
In a letter to Col. Olcott, dated 6th December 1887, HPB writes:
“The Society was formed, then gradually made to merge into and evolve hints of the teachings from the Secret Doctrine of the oldest school of Occult Philosophy in the whole world – a school to reform which, finally, the Lord Gautama was made to appear. These teachings could not be given abruptly. They had to be instilled gradually.”
The Masters are perfectly aware of when is the right time for a particular teaching to be publicly revealed to humanity at large. If a certain truth is given out too soon or too late, the consequences can potentially be disastrous. If reincarnation had been a clearly expressed and central teaching in Theosophy right from the start of the Movement in 1875, this all-important truth would either have been overlooked and ignored by the mass of humanity due to lack of understanding or interest or violently attacked and opposed. Either of these undesirable reactions would have greatly hindered the Great Brotherhood of Adepts in presenting reincarnation to the Western mind.
Thus, the initial groundwork had to first be laid and some of “the rubbish of the ages” (to use HPB’s phrase at the end of “The Secret Doctrine”) had to be cleared away from the Western mind and consciousness before reincarnation could be successfully and clearly presented in all its glorious truth and majesty.
But when the time came for this, HPB found herself being reminded of a seemingly contradictory passage in “Isis Unveiled,” on p. 351 of the first volume:
“We will now present a few fragments of this mysterious doctrine of reincarnation – as distinct from metempsychosis – which we have from an authority. Reincarnation, i.e., the appearance of the same individual, or rather of his astral monad, twice on the same planet, is not a rule in nature; it is an exception, like the teratological phenomenon of a two-headed infant. It is preceded by a violation of the laws of harmony of nature, and happens only when the latter, seeking to restore its disturbed equilibrium, violently throws back into earth-life the astral monad which had been tossed out of the circle of necessity by crime or accident. Thus, in cases of abortion, of infants dying before a certain age, and of congenital and incurable idiocy, nature’s original design to produce a perfect human being, has been interrupted. Therefore, while the gross matter of each of these several entities is suffered to disperse itself at death, through the vast realm of being, the immortal spirit and astral monad of the individual – the latter having been set apart to animate a frame and the former to shed its divine light on the corporeal organization – must try a second time to carry out the purpose of the creative intelligence.”
As can be seen if we read carefully and pay attention, she is not denying reincarnation here but rather is denying the reincarnation of the “astral monad,” the latter being an exception rather than a rule.
At that time, the teaching regarding the Seven Principles or sevenfold nature of the human being had not yet been specifically presented in Theosophy. Man was still being described primarily as a trinity, consisting of his spiritual monad, his astral monad, and his body. The astral monad was explained as being a term for the personal ego, the present personality, that which could be described as the temporary persona or personal character which lasts only for the duration of one lifetime. If we quote the following from an article titled A Right Understanding of Reincarnation, it may help to explain the matter:
“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.”
In “Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits,” HPB clarifies her meaning: “The Occult Doctrine teaches that:- There is no immediate reincarnation on Earth for the Monad, as falsely taught by the Reincarnationist Spiritists; nor is there any second incarnation at all for the “personal” or false Ego – the perisprit – save the exceptional cases mentioned. But that (a) there are re-births, or periodical reincarnations for the immortal Ego (“Ego” during the cycle of re-births, and non-Ego, in Nirvana or Moksha when it becomes impersonal and absolute); for that Ego is the root of every new incarnation, the string on which are threaded, one after the other, the false personalities or illusive bodies called men, in which the Monad-Ego incarnates itself during the cycle of births; and (b) that such reincarnations take place not before 1,500, 2,000, and even 3,000 years of Devachanic life.”
Those who may be surprised or puzzled to see the lengthy time periods mentioned at the end of this quoted passage are encouraged to read the article How Soon do we Reincarnate?
So, then, “Isis Unveiled” denies the reincarnation of the present personality – the so-called “astral monad,” a term which was later dropped from Theosophical vocabulary – but does not deny the reincarnation of the permanent individuality. The personality only ever reappears in those rare instances when the Karmic intent behind it has been temporarily thwarted, i.e. primarily in cases of abortion, children dying before the age of seven, and certain forms of insanity.
The Spiritists of that era – who should not be confused with the Spiritualists, despite many similarities – were teaching a very unphilosophical view of reincarnation, in which they denied anything resembling Karma, identified the soul as being the same in essence and character as the personality, and maintained that reincarnation occurred more or less instantly after the death of the body. Theosophy naturally challenges these conceptions.
When the Spiritualist C.C. Massey showed himself to be incapable of grasping the distinction between the permanent individuality and the present personality, HPB tried to explain it by saying, “There is a mighty difference in our Occult doctrine between an impersonal Individuality, and an individual Personality. C.C.M. will not be reincarnated; nor will he be in his next re-birth C.C.M., but quite a new being, born of the thoughts and deeds of C.C.M.: his own creation, the child and fruit of his present life, the effect of the causes he is now producing. Shall we say then with the Spiritists that C.C.M., the man, we know, will be re-born again? No; but that his divine Monad will be clothed thousands of times yet before the end of the Grand Cycle, in various human forms, every one of them a new personality. Like a mighty tree that clothes itself every spring with a new foliage, to see it wither and die towards autumn, so the eternal Monad prevails through the series of smaller cycles, ever the same, yet ever changing and putting on, at each birth, a new garment. The bud, that failed to open one year, will re-appear in the next; the leaf that reached its maturity and died a natural death – can never be re-born on the same tree again. While writing Isis, we were not permitted to enter into details; hence – the vague generalities. We are told to do so now – and we do as we are commanded.” (“”Isis Unveiled” and “The Theosophist” on Reincarnation”)
An enquirer once sent the following question to be answered by William Q. Judge, HPB’s closest colleague and co-founder of the Theosophical Movement:
“If H.P.B. was taught of Masters for years in Tibet as stated, previous to giving out Their teaching to the Western world in 1875, why was the doctrine of Reincarnation disavowed by her in her early writings? The Masters could not have spoken then, any more than later, in an uncertain tone on this great tenet of Theosophy, which is so interwoven with all Their teaching as to be inseparable from it. Yet in Isis Unveiled it is emphatically stated that “Reincarnation is the exception, not the rule, for the race at large”.”
In Mr Judge’s response, which may be found in the book “Forum Answers,” he writes, “The doctrine of reincarnation was not disavowed in her early writings. … the quotation from Isis at the end of the question is incorrect. Reincarnation is not denied; but reincarnation of the astral monad is denied as the rule. The words omitted from the quotation are the hinge on which this question and reply must turn. Inquirers and members should be careful in making references, as well as in getting the real import of what is read.
“Turn to The Theosophist, pp. 288-9 of August 1882, and you will find the question answered and the remark in Isis explained. Turn to Path, Vol. 1, p. 232, November 1886, and you will find the article Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits dealing with the same matter and by H.P.B. She wrote that article at my request because of a similar question arising from a like misunderstanding. Furthermore I assert as a witness that from 1875 to 1879 H.P.B. taught and explained Reincarnation, and in my case in respect to a relative of mine who died during that period. But when Isis was written, the full scheme of man’s real constitution had not yet been given out, though hinted at broadly. Attention was then paid to the Kardec school of Reincarnationists, with the object of overthrowing their theory, and H.P.B. then, as later, denied personal reincarnation. The reembodiment of the personal astral – called “astral monad” in Isis – never was taught and is not taught by the school from which The Secret Doctrine emanates. Hence her denial of it as the rule in 1877 still holds good and is reasserted in the articles I have pointed out. There is therefore no inconsistency …
“Reincarnation of the “astral monad” – that is, the personal being and the astral body – is not the rule but is the exception; but reincarnation of the Individual or “spiritual monad” is the rule and the doctrine; and it is taught in Isis, to which readers are referred. Wherever H.P.B. seems to deny reincarnation in Isis, she is referring to personal reincarnation, using the word “man” or “person” in that sense. … It is of course to be regretted that Col. Olcott tries with labor to show H.P.B. ignorant of the law in 1875, but that only convicts him of not then knowing the doctrine himself and as not having referred to her full explanations of 1882 and 1886.”
We conclude with these words from articles written by HPB, including her final ever article “My Books” which she wrote just over a week before she passed away:
“We may well be taxed with too loose and careless a mode of expression, with a misuse of the foreign language in which we write, with leaving too much unsaid and depending unwarrantably upon the imperfectly developed intuition of the reader. But there never was, nor can there be, any radical discrepancy between the teachings in “Isis” and those of this later period, as both proceed from one and the same source – the ADEPT BROTHERS.” (“Seeming Discrepancies”)
“I maintain that Isis Unveiled contains a mass of original and never hitherto divulged information on occult subjects. That this is so, is proved by the fact that the work has been fully appreciated by all those who have been intelligent enough to discern the kernel, and pay little attention to the shell, to give the preference to the idea and not to the form, regardless of its minor shortcomings. Prepared to take upon myself – vicariously as I will show – the sins of all the external, purely literary defects of the work, I defend the ideas and teachings in it, with no fear of being charged with conceit, since neither ideas nor teaching are mine, as I have always declared; and I maintain that both are of the greatest value to mystics and students of Theosophy.” (“My Books”)
“And what I say and maintain is this: Save the direct quotations and the many afore specified and mentioned misprints, errors and misquotations, and the general make-up of Isis Unveiled, for which I am in no way responsible, (a) every word of information found in this work or in my later writings, comes from the teachings of our Eastern Masters; and (b) that many a passage in these works has been written by me under their dictation. In saying this no supernatural claim is urged, for no miracle is performed by such a dictation. … Space and distance do not exist for thought; and if two persons are in perfect mutual psycho-magnetic rapport, and of these two, one is a great Adept in Occult Sciences, then thought-transference and dictation of whole pages become as easy and as comprehensible at the distance of ten thousand miles as the transference of two words across a room.” (“My Books”)
~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~
SOME RELATED ARTICLES: A Right Understanding of Reincarnation, Questions about Karma, A Right Understanding of Karma, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, Being Sensible about Past Lives, The Skandhas, How Soon do we Reincarnate?, Death and the Afterlife, The Process of Reincarnation, Reincarnation and Christianity, There is No Injustice, Is Karma Merciful and Compassionate?, Theosophy: The Ancient Wisdom, How to successfully study the Teachings of H.P. Blavatsky, Who are you, Madame Blavatsky?, The Masters and Madame Blavatsky, Who was William Quan Judge?, The Welcome Influence of William Q. Judge, Miracle or Magic? 10 Main Points from Isis Unveiled, and The Extraordinary Story behind Isis Unveiled.