(From “An Outline of Theosophy”)
Since the finer movements cannot at first affect the soul, he has to draw round him vestures of grosser matter through which the heavier vibrations can play; and so he takes upon himself successively the mental body, the astral body, and the physical body. This is a birth or incarnation –the commencement of a
physical life. During that life all kinds of experiences come to him through his physical body, and from them he should learn some lessons and develop some qualities in himself.
After a time he begins to withdraw into himself, and puts off by degrees the vestures which he has assumed. The first of these to drop is the physical body, and his withdrawal from that is what we call death. It is not the end of his activities, as we so ignorantly suppose; nothing could be further from the fact.
He is simply withdrawing from one effort, bearing back with him its results; and after a certain period of comparative repose he will make another effort of the same kind.
Thus, as has been said, what we ordinarily call his life is only one day in the real and wider life – a day at school, during which he learns certain lessons.
But inasmuch as one short life of seventy or eighty years at most is not enough to give him an opportunity of learning all the lessons which this wonderful and beautiful world has to teach, and inasmuch as God means him to learn them all in His own good time, it is necessary that he should come back again many times, and live through many of these schooldays that we call lives, in different classes and under different circumstances, until all the lessons are learned; and then this lower schoolwork will be over, and he will pass to something higher and more glorious – the true divine lifework for which all this earthly school-life is fitting him.
That is what is called the doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth – a doctrine which was widely known in the ancient civilisations, and is even today held by the majority of the human race. Of it Hume has written:-
“What is incorruptible must also be ungenerable. The soul, therefore, if immortal, existed before our birth…..The metempsychosis is, therefore, the only system of this kind that Philosophy can hearken to.” * (* Hume. “Essay on
the theories of metempsychosis in
“There is something underlying them all which, if expressed in less mythological language, may stand the severest test of philosophical examination.” # (# Max Muller, ‘Theosophy or Psychological Religion,’ p. 22, 1895 ed.)In his last and posthumous work this great Orientalist again refers to this
doctrine, and expresses his personal belief in it.
And Huxley writes: - “Like the doctrine of evolution itself, that of transmigration has its roots in the world of reality; and it may claim such support as the great argument from analogy is capable of supplying.” ^ ( ^ Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics,” p. 61, 1895 ed.)So it will be seen that modern as well as ancient writers recognise this hypothesis as one deserving of the most serious consideration.
It must not for a moment be confounded with a theory held by the ignorant, that it was possible for a soul which had reached humanity in its evolution to re-become that of an animal. No such retrogression is within the limits of possibility; when once man comes into existence – a human soul, inhabiting what we call in our books a causal body – he can never again fall back into what is in truth a lower kingdom of nature, whatever mistakes he may make or however he may fail to take advantage of his opportunities. If he is idle in the school of life, he may need to take the same lesson over and over again before he has really learned it , but still on the whole progress is steady, even though it may often be slow. A few years ago the essence of this doctrine was prettily put thus in one of the magazines: -
“A boy went to school. He was very little. All that he knew he had drawn in with his mother’s milk. His teacher (who was God) placed him in the lowest class, and gave him these lessons to learn: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt do no hurt to any living thing. Thou shalt not steal. So the man did not kill; but he was
cruel, and he stole, - At the end of the day (when his beard was grey – when the night was come) his teacher (who was God) said – Thou hast learned not to kill. But the other lessons thou hast not learned. Come back tomorrow.”
“On the morrow he came back, a little boy, and his teacher (who was God) put him in a class a little higher, and gave him these lessons to learn: Thou shalt do no hurt to any living thing. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not cheat. So the man did no hurt to any living thing; but he stole and he cheated. And at the end of the day – when his beard was grey – when the night was come – his teacher (who was god) said: Thou hast learned to be merciful. But the other lessons thou hast not learned. Come back tomorrow.”
“Again, on the morrow, he came back, a little boy. And his teacher (who was God) put him in a class yet a little higher, and gave these lessons to learn: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not cheat. Thou shalt not covet. So the man did not steal; but he cheated, and he coveted. And at the end of the day – (when his
beard was grey –when night was come) his teacher (who was God) said: Thou hast learned not to steal. But the other lessons thou hast not learned. Come back, my child, tomorrow.”
“This is what I have read in the faces of men and women, in the book of the world, and in the scroll of the heavens, which is writ in the stars.” (Berry Benson, in The Century Magazine, May 1894).
I must not fill my pages with the many unanswerable arguments in favour of this doctrine of reincarnation; they are set forth very fully in our literature by a far abler pen than mine. Here I will say only this. Life presents us with many problems which, on any other hypothesis than this of reincarnation, seem utterly
insoluble; this great truth does explain them, and therefore holds the field until another more satisfactory hypothesis can be found. Like the rest of the teaching, this is not a Hypothesis, but a matter of direct knowledge for many of us; but naturally our knowledge is not proof to others.
Yet good men and true have been sorrowfully forced to admit that they were unable to reconcile the state of affairs which exists in the world around us with the theory that God was both almighty and all-loving. They felt, when they looked upon all the heartbreaking sorrow and suffering, that either He was not
almighty, and could not prevent it, or He was not all-loving, and did not care.
In Theosophy we hold with determined conviction that He is both almighty and all-loving, and we reconcile with that certainty the existing facts of life by means of this basic doctrine of reincarnation. Surely the only hypothesis which allows us reasonably to recognise the perfection of power and love in the Deity is one which is worthy of careful examination.
For we understand that our present life is not our first, but that each have behind us a long line of lives, by means of which we have evolved from the condition of primitive man to our present position. Assuredly in these past lives we shall have done both good and evil, and from every one of our actions a definite proportion of result must have followed under the inexorable law of justice. From the good follows always happiness and further opportunity; from the evil follows always sorrow and limitation.
So, if we find ourselves limited in any way, the limitation is of our own making, or is merely due to the youth of the soul; if we have sorrow and suffering to endure, we ourselves alone are responsible. The manifold and complex destinies of men answer with rigid exactitude to the balance between the good and evil of their previous actions; and all is moving onward under the
divine order towards the final consummation of glory.
There is perhaps, no Theosophical teaching to which more violent objection is made than this great truth of reincarnation; yet it is in reality a most comforting doctrine. For it gives us time for the progress which lies before – time and opportunity to become “perfect”. Objectors chiefly found their protest
on the fact that they have had so much trouble and sorrow in this life that they will not listen to any suggestion that it may be necessary to go through it all again. But this is obviously not argument; we are in search of truth, and when it is found we must not shrink from it, whether it be pleasant or unpleasant,
though, as a matter of fact, as said above, reincarnation rightly understood is profoundly comforting.
Again, people often enquire why, if we have had so many previous lives, we do not remember any of them. Put briefly, the answer to this is that some people do remember them; and the reason why the majority do not is because their consciousness is still focused in one or other of the lower sheaths. That sheath
cannot be expected to recollect previous incarnations, because it has not had any; and the soul, which has, is not yet fully conscious on its own plane. But the memory of all the past is stored within the soul, and expresses itself here in the innate qualities with which the child is born; and when the man has
evolved sufficiently to be able to focus his consciousness there instead of only in lower vehicles the entire history of that real and wider life will be open before him like a book.
The whole of this question is fully and beautifully worked out in Mrs. Besant’s manual on Reincarnation, Dr, Jerome Anderson’s Reincarnation and in the chapters on that subject in The Ancient Wisdom, to which the attention of the reader is specially directed.
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