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By Annie Besant
IF it be difficult for a new truth to gain a hearing amid the strife of tongues that marks our modern civilisation it is yet more difficult for a truth to make itself heard which has become new only by force of age. If our eye could sweep over the intellectual history of the race, unrolled before us for centuries of millenniums, then a gap in the dominance of some world-wide idea, stretching over some few hundreds of years among a small number of the nations, would but slightly impress us. But when that gap—a mere partial fissure in an immemorial past—includes the intellectual development of Europe, and is scanned by Europeans, it assumes an importance quite out of proportion to its relative extent in time, its relative weight in argument. Great and valuable as is the contribution brought by Europe to the mental treasurehouse of mankind, we Europeans are very apt to overestimate it, and to forget that the very brief period of intellectual achievement in Europe cannot rationally be taken as outweighing the total mental fruitage of the non-European races, gathered over thousands of centuries. This looming large of our own recent past, until, as a plate held before our eyes shuts out the sun, it hides the past of the world from our mental gaze, is a danger against which we should be on our guard. The wise listen most readily to those whose habits of thoughts are most alien from their own, knowing that thus they may chance to catch a glimpse of some new aspect of truth, instead of seeing once more the mere reflection of the aspect already familiar. Men's racial habits, traditions, surroundings, are as coloured glasses through which they look at the sun of Truth; each glass lends its own tint to the sunbeam, and the white ray is transmitted as red, or blue, or yellow—what you will. As we cannot get rid of our glass and catch the pure uncoloured radiance, we do wisely to combine the coloured rays and so obtain the white.
Now Reincarnation is a truth that has swayed the minds of innumerable millions of our race, and has moulded the thoughts of the vast majority for uncounted centuries. It dropped out of the European mind during the Dark Ages, and so ceased to influence our mental and moral development—very much, be it said in passing, to the injury of that development. For the last hundred years it has from time to time flashed through the minds of some of the greater Westerns, as a possible explanation of some of life's most puzzling problems: and during recent years, since its clear enunciation as an essential part of the Esoteric Teaching, it has been constantly debated, and is as constantly gaining ground, among the more thoughtful students of the mysteries of life and of evolution.
There is, of course, no doubt that the great historical religions of the East included the teaching of Reincarnation as a fundamental tenet. In India, as in Egypt, Reincarnation was at the root of ethics. Among the Jews it was held commonly by the Pharisees,1 and the popular belief comes out in. various phrases in the New Testament, as when John the Baptist is regarded as a reincarnation of Elijah or as when the disciples ask whether the man born blind is suffering for the sin of his parents or for some former sin of his own. The Zohar, again, speaks of souls as being subjected to transmigration. "All souls are subject to revolution (metempsychosis, a'leen b'gilgoolah), but men do not know the ways of the Holy One; blessed be it! they are ignorant of the way they have been judged in all time, and "before they came into this world and when they have quitted it."1 The Kether Malkuth evidently has the same idea as that conveyed by Josephus, when it says: " If she (the soul) be pure, then shall she obtain favour and rejoice in the latter day; but if she hath been denied, then shall she wander for a time in pain and despair," 2 So also, we find the doctrine taught by eminent Fathers of the Church, and Ruffinus 3 states that belief in it was common among the primitive Fathers. Needless to say that the philosophic Gnostics and Neo-Platonists held it as an integral part of their doctrine. If we glance to the Western Hemisphere we meet Reincarnation as a firmly rooted belief among many of the tribes of North and South America. The Mayas, with their deeply interesting connection in language and symbolism with ancient Egypt, held the traditional doctrine, as has been shown by the investigations of Dr. and Mme. le Plongeon. To these, the name of many another tribe might be added, remnants of once famous nations, that in their decay have preserved the ancestral beliefs that once linked them with the mightiest peoples of the elder world.
It could scarcely be expected that a teaching of such vast antiquity and such magnificent intellectual ancestry should fade out of the mind of mankind; and accordingly we find that the eclipse it suffered a few centuries ago was very partial, affecting only a small portion of the race. The ignorance that swamped Europe carried away belief in Reincarnation, as it carried away all philosophy, all metaphysics, and all science. Mediaeval Europe did not offer the soil on which could flourish any wide-sweeping and philosophical view of man's nature and destiny. But in the East, which enjoyed a refined and gracious civilisation while Europe was sunk in barbarism; which had its philosophers and its poets while the West was densely illiterate; in the East, the great doctrine held undisputed sway, whether in the subtle metaphysics of the Brahmans, or in the noble morality which finds its home under the shadow of the Buddha and His Good Law.
But while a fact of Nature may in some part of the world for a time be ignored it cannot be destroyed, and, submerged for a moment, it will again reassert itself in the sight of men. This has been demonstrated anew in the history of the doctrine of Reincarnation in Europe, in its occasional reappearances, traceable from the founding of Christendom to the present time, in its growing acceptance today.
When Christianity first swept over Europe, the inner thought of its leaders was deeply tinctured with this truth. The Church tried ineffectually to eradicate it, and in various sects it kept sprouting forth beyond the time of Erigena and Benaventura, its mediaeval advocates. Every great intuitional soul, as Paracelsus, Boehme and Swedenborg, has adhered to it. The Italian luminaries, Giordano Bruno and Campanella, embraced it. The best of German philosophy is enriched by it. In Schopenhauer, Lessing, Hegel, Leibnitz, Herder, and Fichte the younger, it is earnestly advocated. The anthropological systems of Kant and Schelling furnish points of contact with it. The younger Helmont, in De Revolutions Animarum, adduces in two hundred problems all the arguments which may be urged in favour of the return of souls into human bodies, according to Jewish ideas. Of English thinkers, the Cambridge Platonists defended it with much learning and acuteness, most conspicuously Henry More; and in Cudworth and Hume, it ranks as the most rational theory of immortality. Glanvil's Lux Orientalis devotes a curious treatise to it. It captivated the minds of Fourier and Leroux. Andre Pezzani's book on The Plurality of the Soul's Lines works out the system on the Roman Catholic idea of expiation.
The reader of Schopenhauer will be familiar with the aspect taken by Reincarnation in his philosophy. Penetrated as was the great German with Eastern thought from his study of the Upanishads, it would have been passing strange had this corner-stone of Hindu philosophy found no place in his system. Nor is Schopenhauer the only philosopher from the Intellectual and mystical German people who has accepted Reincarnation as a necessary factor in Nature. The opinions of Fichte, of Herder, of Lessing, may surely claim to be of some weight in the intellectual world, and these men see in Reincarnation a solution for problems otherwise insoluble. It is true that the intellectual world is not a despotic State, and none may impose his opinion on his fellows by personal authority; none the less are opinions weighed there rather than counted, and the mightier and more instructed intellects of the West, though they be here in a small minority, will command respectful hearing for that which they deliberately advance, from all whose minds are not so hide-bound by modern tradition as to be unable to appreciate the value of arguments addressed to the support of an unfashionable truth.
It is interesting to note that the mere idea of Reincarnation is no longer regarded in the West— at least by educated people—as absurd. It is-gradually assuming the position of a possible hypothesis, to be considered on its merits, on its power of explaining puzzling and apparently unrelated phenomena. Regarding it myself as, to me, a proven fact, I am concerned rather to put it forward on these pages as a probable hypothesis, throwing more light than does any other theory on the obscure problems of man's constitution, of his character, his evolution, and his destiny. Reincarnation and Karma are said by a Master to be the two doctrines of which the West stands most in. need; so it cannot he ill done for a believer in the Masters to set forth an outline, for the ordinary reader, of this central teaching of the Esoteric Philosophy.
Let us start with a clear understanding of what is meant by Reincarnation. So far as the derivation of the word is concerned, any repeated entering into a physical, or fleshly covering, might be included thereunder. It certainly implies the existence of something relatively permanent that enters into and inhabits successive somethings relatively impermanent. But the word tells us nothing of the nature of these relatively permanent and impermanent somethings, save that the impermanent habitations are of " flesh ". Another word, often used as synonymous with Reincarnation, the word Metempsychosis, suggests the other side of the transaction; here the habitation is ignored, and the stress is laid on the transit of the Psyche, the relatively permanent. Putting the two together as descriptive of the whole idea, we should have the entry of a Psyche or " soul" into successive " bodies " of flesh; and though the word " soul " is open to serious objections, from its looseness and its theological connotations, it may stand for the moment as representing in the minds of most people a form of existence which outlasts the physical frame with which it was connected during a life on earth.
In this general sense, apart from any special exoteric or esoteric teaching, Reincarnation and Metempsychosis are words which denote a theory of existence, according to which a form of visible matter is inhabited by a more ethereal principle, which outlives its physical encasement, and, on the death of the latter, passes on, immediately or after an interval, to dwell in some other frame. Never, perhaps, has this doctrine, in its loftiest form, been put more clearly or more beautifully than in the famous encouragement of Arjuna by Krishna, given in the Bhagavad-Gita: