Abrahamic religions apart, beliefs about reincarnation are ancient and widespread across much of the world. However, even among those who believe in it there are also important disagreements. Not least of these concern the conditions the self may find itself in following the death of the physical body. It’s clear that the original teachings on this and related subjects have been variously distorted during their transmission from generation to generation and from culture to culture; and anyway, even if this was not the case, the truth of these things cannot be proved or disproved to the satisfaction of all. No complete agreement, even between believers, is possible.
In spite of this the best of the ancient teachings are clear. And while these brief notes can only provide a starting point for further study and reflection, the sincere seeker of the ancient way will find in them some of the important principles originally established for our benefit by great men many centuries beyond the reach of our historians.
Perhaps not surprisingly, mainstream material science in western developed countries rejects all such beliefs out of hand. it denies the existence of any sort of soul or self that is capable of surviving or acting independently of the body. From science’s point of view consciousness, personality, mind and any sense of self or identity are all the result of the functioning of the brain. Once the brain stops working at death, the mind fails to survive and all these qualities disappear. Oblivion awaits man after his body dies.
Hope of real progress for the material sciences in this field of study probably lies with the work of scientists researching near death experiences and other associated subjects. As is always the case however, the mainstream tries hard to ignore, ridicule and side-line all such questioning of its fundamental doctrines. So unless and until such progress is made, ‘you only live once’ is the pernicious and misleading counsel whispered into the ear of the unwary; and the consequences of accepting such advice are many and more damaging than is often realised.
The ancient teachings confirm that man’s higher self – the better, unselfish part, the part that seeks the light – is not the body, and nor is it the brain. It is that immortal part of us which uses the brain in order to direct the actions of the body. They also assert that this higher ego has existed before incarnation in a human body, and will exist when the need for a human body has passed. It is indestructible and is the real pilgrim on the path of life. It can and does exist independently of the physical body.
“Indestructible, verily, is the Self — thus says the scripture of the Self, declaring that it is not destroyed when all its changing vestures are destroyed.” (Sankaracharya)
They knew that the task of the re-incarnating ego is to learn how to tame, harmonise and direct the lower or animal nature and to recondition it so that it becomes a perfect instrument for the manifestation of the higher life. They teach further that this inner control, harmony or peace is the first and most difficult step on the path to perfection.
They taught their followers that the ultimate goal of the higher self can be attained only as the result of much experience gained in many incarnations under greatly varying conditions of life. Our birth, according to the ancient teachings, should be considered not as the first chapter of a book, but rather as the start of a chapter in a book that has already many previous chapters. They regarded the world in which we live as a great school for the development of the powers of the spirit, a school of many classrooms. The low type of human being is in reception, kindergarten or primary school class, and he returns there again and again until he has learned the lessons which the kindergarten has to teach. Only then may he pass to the next classroom. We are all of us in one or another of these classrooms, and thus, step by step, we grow in wisdom and power. Behind us lies a chain of lives, the long record of our past struggles, triumphs and failures. Ahead of us lies a destiny which we ourselves create. Birth is not the beginning of life, nor is death its ending.
“Passing through varying births it gains experience, now descending, now ascending; of this intelligence-formed vesture, waking, dream and dreamlessness are the fields where it experiences pleasure and pain.” (Sankaracharya)
The conditions and circumstances of our life provide us with the opportunities to take another step in our evolution. But beware the crude and superstitious teachings of Karma that imply that our fortunate worldly position, high social class or any such similar conditions are proof of an exalted spiritual status or that they in any way reflect our advanced inner development. All of the various social and religious classes, castes, races, nationalities and similar groupings of men contain within their ranks the truly advanced who shed their much needed and mostly unseen light on all those they contact. The poor in terms of material riches can be among the very kings and princes of minds when their inner, spiritual status is considered. And in a similar fashion, apparent undeserved suffering in this life should be seen by the seeker not as direct punishment for actions performed in a previous life, but simply as ‘the curing of the soul of its errors’.
On the death of the body, the ancient teachings assert that the self retires to the realms beyond the earth plane for a period of rest and recuperation during which the lessons of the physical life just ended are weighed and assimilated. The person who is still bound to the forces it has not yet fully overcome is eventually drawn from that realm again to the gateway of birth and further material experiences. There are those who claim to have retained memories of the period spent between lives on earth, and the process by which they were reincarnated; although some of them consider the time for incarnation to be more of a curse than a blessing.
“From this realm of serene youth, of white and flower-wreathed temples, here where gods, child-like and simple, the essence of unforgotten and eternal wisdom, were worshipped, was I banished, to dive and drown in the malicious and turbulent waves of passion and desire!” (Juste)
Who knows how many times we have left our home on high to take up a new physical body, possibly in a different race and country, to re-tread on earth the way of progress. And how many – or few – lives might be needed before the final victory is won, and we need return no more?
But however many times we might be required to enter and subsequently leave our body at ‘death’, we can be sure that our true spiritual identity is never lost. For the so-called annihilation of the individual self on achieving liberation from the necessity of repeated births (Niban or Nirvana), is a distortion of the original teaching.
But this annihilation does not relate to the spirit, but only to that of the passions! When these are totally extinguished in the soul, it becomes perfect, and akin to God, and never again comes under the law of transmigration, or as Spiritists say, of re-incarnation. (Kenealy)
Though the seeker should remember that we can’t and so shouldn’t try to destroy the passions. Peace, moderate inner control, balance and harmony are the answers, for these lead to purification and to regeneration, which is the real annihilation of the turbulence and unhealthy desires of the lower self.
At various times men have believed that the soul can enter into non-human bodies, returning to earth as animals, insects, trees and even stones. These and similar distortions have arisen from the ancient use of allegory and symbol. The different types of body entered by the soul represented varying states of being and were not intended to be taken literally.
“That it was allegorical there can be very little doubt. A man of the learning of Pythagoras, who was skilled in all the wisdom of Egypt, could never for a moment suppose, that after death, the soul of a rational being would pass into a beast; that that fair mind, which had told the number of the stars, and penetrated all the dark profundities of nature, was one day to grovel in a grasshopper, or to shine darkling in some glow-worm, as if in emulation of its decayed glories.” (Kenealy)
No, the path we must tread throughout our lives on earth and elsewhere is a path of progress and growth and expansion, though the way is long and sometimes hard. But the more we persevere the closer to home we will find ourselves. And for you who read this, and for I who write, our real home is a country of great beauty and goodness: a heaven that will exceed our every wish. And if we are one who has used this incarnation to acquire a little wisdom and are good at heart then our rewards when we return home will be great indeed. And there will we rest for a while until the time arrives when once again we must return to complete our lessons on earth; and perhaps when our task is done we will enter into Heaven at last, and be free from the wheel of rebirth for evermore.
“The mind of the being who comes down to earth from Heaven to be born as man is as pure as fine flour, ground by the mill-stones of rebirth.
Therefore I teach unto thee: Let the white-floured meal of the Mind be mixed while on earth with the oil of true understanding and the honey of Wisdom, that the baking shall be soft and sweet.” (Michaud)