What reincarnation could have done for history
by Felicity Eliot
A study of history has certain inevitable consequences, one of which is the ‘what-if’ and ‘if only’ theory. This is the sort of awareness of what might have happened which only hindsight affords. The following is a brutally brief glance at the history of reincarnation — a history which tempts one to indulge in more what-iffing than usual. For the sake of all, we will suppose Atlantis never was and start where standard received history normally begins. Poor Western man. For centuries he has suffered, confronted with absurdity, meaninglessness and injustice. Death, blind faith, materialism, political and patriotic passion were possible antidotes. But whether he applied the remedy of faith and dogma, or of materialism, indeed whatever was tried, his reality remained fragmented. However he tried to make sense of life and death some nagging questions remained. (If only the teachings of Origen had not been pronounced anathema...)
There is one way — the way of knowledge through experience and intuition. This is the way of the initiates, the great thinkers, whose names are well known and whose impact is felt even centuries later. Space does not allow anything but the briefest mention of these extraordinary and highly evolved people. A list of brilliant thinkers, who intuited and taught the doctrine of rebirth is virtually endless. Let us name a few: Plato, Pythagoras, Origen, St. Augustine, Philo Judaeus, Paracelsus, Boehme, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, Bruno, Kant, Blake, Schiller, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Browning, Flaubert, Wagner, Tolstoy, Kipling, Sibelius, McTaggart, Gandhi.
Tracing the idea of rebirth backwards into remote times, we find that it runs like a golden seam through the thought and teachings of some of these greatest minds and existed too in early cultures. That a belief in reincarnation forms a basic part of many eastern religions is well known. What may be surprising to some is its acceptance by peoples and cultures as diverse as some African tribes and the Eskimos; Australian and Finns, Lapps, Danes and Norse; Pacific Islanders and Celts of Gaul, Wales, England and Ireland. In other words, it is not difficult to make a case for reincarnation. The idea seems to have been with mankind from earliest times and in many different often unconnected cultures.
In the development of Western civilization the doctrine of rebirth is always present: explicit and popular at times, persecuted and forced underground at others, the essence of philosophers’ teachings, the cause of cruel deaths. It formed an integral part of many religions including Christianity. The doctrine of metempsychosis was always known to esoteric groups: the Egyptian and Greek Mystery Schools, in the Hermetic tradition, part of Kabalism, Manicheism, Gnosticism, Sufism, to give a few examples.
The great initiate-philosophers knew and taught metempsychosis. Pythagoras, Plato, Pindar, Herodotus the historian and Socrates all believed in reincarnation. Pythagoras had the surname ‘Mnesarchides’, which means ‘one who remembers his origins’. According to Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Pythagoras, the sage talked of previous lives which he recalled.
Pindar is quite explicit not only about the soul’s immortality and its cyclical manifestation but also on the subject of karma and evolution into greater divinity: "As for those from whom Persephone has exacted the penalty of their ancient sins, she once more restoreth their souls to the upper sunlight; and from these come into being august monarchs, and men who are swift in strength and supreme in wisdom; and for all future time, men call them sainted heroes." (‘supreme in wisdom’, ‘sainted heroes’ — a description which accords so well with those we have from various disciples of their Masters!) Socrates we know of through his pupil Plato; both accepted the doctrine of rebirth, which rendered Socrates quite fearless, so that he was able to devote "his last morning to reasoning on the real distinction of the soul from the body, and the grounds for believing that it is neither born with the body nor dies with it...." Plato’s ideas on reincarnation had an enormous influence on Western literature and philosophy. The Platonic Schools of Athens, modelled on his Academy, flourished for nine centuries until a decree by Justinian forbade their existence.
Rome’s history was influenced by neighbouring Greece. (Pythagoras settled in southern Italy, where he founded a religious-philosophical group. The Stoics held that the soul is immortal and periodically reincarnates. A powerful advocate for the idea of rebirth was Posidonius, born in Syria a little over a century before Christ. Among those who heard him speak was Cicero who himself gradually became a reincarnationist. Other famous Roman names connected with this doctrine were Virgil and Ovid.
The Early Church
In the Early Church again we find a host of names of great and well-known people whose ideas, had they not been declared anathema, would certainly have ensured a broader and more logical view of reality in the West. Among them are Tertullian, Origen (c. 185-c. 254 AD) and Saint Augustine (354-430).
Around about the 4th century everything gets a little nasty; this is a time when issues of dogma turn into disputes and battles which the church council is called upon to settle. The cry ‘heresy!’ seems to spring readily to the lips and notorious anathemas are pronounced, persecution and murder instigated. Origenism is forbidden, Platonism too. (See the article ‘Emperor, not Pope...’) By the 5th century Neoplatonism had reached a peak of popularity and influence; one of the leading figures was Hypatia, philosopher and mathematician. She lectured in Alexandria, her obvious wisdom drawing crowds. So popular were Hypatia’s teachings that, in 414, Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, had her murdered. The Neoplatonist School came to an end; some adherents fled to Athens and attempted to found a similar school there but were prevented from doing so by Emperor Justinius. Some members managed to escape to the Middle East.
Suppressed in Europe, the idea of reincarnation appears in Asia Minor, taught and protected by the Paulinian Gnostics. The knowledge was deliberately spread to Thrace (modern Bulgaria) and thence throughout the Slavic world. Following the trade routes into central Europe, the doctrine of metempsychosis reappeared in Europe where it was taken up by groups and communities who became known as the Cathars and the Albigenses. Their beliefs became so popular and threatening to the established church that once again persecution broke out, this time in the form of the fanatical Inquisition. Those who escaped to England and their followers became known as the Lollards.
The Renaissance throughout Europe meant a revival of Platonism, interest in the Kabala and the ideas of Pythagoras. That a versatile genius like Leonardo Da Vinci was a reincarnationist comes as no surprise; in his Notebooks there are several passages that show clearly that Leonardo accepted the pre-existence of the soul. At about the same time, Paracelsus wrote: "Some children are born from heaven and others are born from hell, because each human being has his inherent tendencies, and these tendencies belong to his spirit, and indicate the state in which he existed before he was born."
Philosopher and dramatist, Giordano Bruno, born in 1548, was put to death in 1600 accused of heresy. Intellectually, he began within the Church but, dissatisfied, he later studied the teachings of earlier reincarnationists — Plato, Hermes, Raymond Lully, Nicolas de Cusa, and others. Threatened with arrest on a charge of heresy he travelled through Europe, lecturing at various universities. His theories were brilliantly developed, he was a true evolutionist and one of the first Europeans to introduce the term ‘Monad (Leibniz later took this up). A fascinating fact about Bruno is that by simply extending his views of the cosmic laws of rebirth (that all movement and manifestation is cyclic, and that the soul incarnates cyclically) to the workings of the physical body, he was the first Westerner to teach the idea of the circulation of the blood.
In books on reincarnation, many writers and poets have been cited as believers in the doctrine, often because characters in their books and plays talk about past or future lives. Whether the writers can be described, therefore, as reincarnationists is debatable. Shakespeare’s characters, for instance, vary in their ideas on death, life and immortality. Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton all address the idea of rebirth.
Spinoza and Leibniz, born within a few years of each other, both recognized and wrote about man’s immortality and the process of evolution through reincarnation. Concurrently, similar ideas held the attention of other great minds. Voltaire in France, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine in America, Kant, Herder and Lessing in Germany, Hume and Pope in England were all men of the eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment and the predominance of rationalism. They all believed in the notion of rebirth. Voltaire wrote: "The doctrine of metempsychosis is, above all, neither absurd nor useless...It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection."
Immanuel Kant’s exposition on reincarnation is extraordinary in that he theorizes about man’s continued life not only on this planet but on others too. His transcendentalism opened up a new era in metaphysical thought which flourished, especially in 19th century Germany. Others whose brilliance added light to the Kantian revolution were Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. Their influence was not limited to Germany alone, but was felt in Europe and America and was enhanced by an increased interest in Oriental philosophy and religious writings.
Schopenhauer was the first to collect and publish references to the doctrine of rebirth from early to contemporary times; in the compilation he himself wrote: "We find the doctrine of metempsychosis springing from the earliest and noblest ages of the human race, always spread abroad on the earth as the belief of the great majority of mankind."
Translations of Eastern scriptures — the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, etc, —now became more widely available, with far-reaching consequences. The American Transcendental movement was deeply influenced by Oriental doctrines. Thoreau, Emerson and their contemporaries studied them and also read Platonic philosophers in the original Greek. Thoreau, Emerson, Walt Whitman and others, too numerous to mention here, were all reincarnationists.
In France, Flaubert, Victor Hugo and others examined the doctrine in their works, many were absolutely convinced that they had lived before. In Russia, Dostoevsky (in The Brothers Karamazov) refers to the idea, while Tolstoy seems to have been quite definite that he had lived before.
The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Olcott and William Judge. This marked, from the Hierarchical point of view, the first step towards its externalization, making more exoteric much information that had up to then been known to few. From this point on, through the work of Madame Blavatsky and her colleagues, the doctrine of rebirth, the idea of a great law equivalent to the scientifically known law of cause and effect, the theory of the existence of a soul and its immortality and other related ideas became available to the general public.
If only there had been a more favourable press reception of these teachings...
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