Socrates to Salinger
For the soul there is neither birth nor death
at any time.
He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being.
He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval He is not slain when the body is slain.
Does life begin with birth and end with death? Have we lived before? Such questions are normally identified with religions of the East, where the life of man is known to endure not only from the cradle to the grave, but through millions of ages, and acceptance of the idea of rebirth is nearly universal. As Arthur Schopenhauer, the great nineteenth-century German philosopher, once observed, "Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: It is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that man was created out of nothing, and that his present birth is his first entrance into life." (Parerga and Paralipomena, II, Chapter 16)1
Indeed, the dominant ideology of the West, material science, has for several centuries stifled any serious or widespread interest in the preexistence and survival of consciousness beyond the present body. But throughout Western history, there have always been thinkers who have understood and affirmed the immortality of consciousness and transmigration of the soul. And a multitude of philosophers, authors, artists, scientists, and politicians have given the idea thoughtful consideration.
Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato may be numbered among those who made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. At the end of his life, Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." (Phaedo, translator Benjamin Jowett)2 Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives, and Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works. Briefly, he held that the pure soul falls from the plane of absolute reality because of sensual desire and then takes on a physical body. First, the fallen souls take birth in human forms, the highest of which is that of the philosopher, who strives for higher knowledge. If his knowledge becomes perfect, the philosopher can return to an eternal existence. But if he becomes hopelessly entangled in material desires, he descends into the animal species of lite. Plato believed that gluttons and drunkards may become asses in future lives, violent and unjust people may take birth as wolves and hawks, and blind followers of social convention may become bees or ants. After some time, the soul again attains the human form and another chance to achieve liberation. (Phaedrus)3 Some scholars believe that Plato and other early Greek philosophers derived their knowledge of reincarnation from mystery religions like Orphism, or from India.
Judaism, Christianity, Islam
Hints of reincarnation are also common in the history of Judaism and early Christianity. Information about past and future lives is found throughout the Cabala, which according to many Hebraic scholars represents the hidden wisdom behind the scriptures. In the Zohar, one of the principal Cabalistic texts, it is said, "The souls must reenter the absolute substance whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this, they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them; and if they have not furfilled this condition during one life, they must commence another, a third, and so forth, until they have acquired the condition which fits them for reunion with God." (E. D. Walker, Reincarnation: A Study of Forgotten Truth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888, p. 212)4 According to the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, the Hasidic Jews hold similar beliefs. (Article, "Souls, Transmigration of.")5
In the third century A.D., the theologian Origen, one of the fathers of the early Christian Church, and its most accomplished Biblical scholar, wrote, "By some inclination toward evil, certain souls .. come into bodies, first of men; then through their association with the irrational passions, after the allotted span of human life, they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of... plants. From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place." (De Principiis, Book III, Chapter 5. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, editors, Alexander Roberts and lames Donaldson. Edinburgh: Clark, 1867)6
There are many passages in the Bible itself indicating that Christ and his followers were aware of the principle of reincarnation. Once, the disciples of Jesus asked him about the Old Testament prophecy that Elias would reappear on earth. In the Gospel of St. Matthew we read, "And Jesus answered them, Elias shall truly first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, that Elias is come already, and they knew him not... Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist." (Matthew. 17:913)7 In other words, Jesus declared that John the Baptist, who was beheaded by Herod, was a reincarnation of the prophet Elias. In another instance, Jesus and his disciples came across a man blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, "Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John. 9:2)8 Regardless who had sinned, Jesus replied, here was a chance to show a work of God. He then cured the man. Now, had the man been born blind for a sin of his own, it must have been a sin done before his birth -- that is, in a previous life. And this was a suggestion that Jesus did not dispute.
The Koran says, "And you were dead, and He brought you back to life. And He shall cause you to die, and shall bring you back to life, and in the end shall gather you unto Himself." (Sura 2:28)9 Among the followers of Islam, the Sufis especially believe that death is no loss, for the immortal soul continually passes through different bodies. Jalalu 'D-Din Rumi, a famous Sufi poet, writes,
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as a plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
(R. A. Nicholson, Rumi, Poet and Mystic. London: Allen & Unwin, 1950, p. 103)10
The timeless Vedic scriptures of India confirm that the soul, according to its identification with material nature, takes one of 8,400,000 forms and, once embodied in a certain species of life, evolves automatically from lower to higher forms, ultimately attaining a human body.
Thus, all of the major Western religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- have definite threads of reincarnation throughout the fabric of their teachings, even though the official custodians of dogma ignore or deny them.
The Middle Ages
and the Renaissance
Under circumstances that to this very day remain shrouded in mystery, the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 553 A.D. banned the teachings of preexistence of the soul from the Roman Catholic Church. During that era, numerous Church writings were destroyed, and many scholars now believe that references to reincarnation were purged from the scriptures. The Gnostic sects, although severely persecuted by the church, did, however, manage to keep alive the doctrine of reincarnation in the West. (The word gnostic is derived from the Greek gnosis, meaning "knowledge.")
During the Renaissance, a new flowering of public interest in reincarnation occurred. One of the prominent figures in the revival was Italy's leading philosopher and poet Giordano Bruno, who was ultimately sentenced to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition because of his teachings about reincarnation. In his final answers to the charges brought against him, Bruno defiantly proclaimed that the soul "is not the body" and that "it may be in one body or in another, and pass from body to body." (William Boulting, Giordano Bruno, His Life, Thought, and Martyrdom. London: Kegan Paul, 1914. pp. 163-64)11
Because of such suppression by the Church, the teachings of reincarnation then went deeply underground, surviving in Europe in the secret societies of the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Cabalists, and others.
The Age of Enlightenment
During the Age of Enlightenment, European intellectuals began to free themselves from the constraints of Church censorship. The great philosopher Voltaire wrote that the doctrine of reincarnation is "neither absurd nor useless," adding, "It is not more surprising to be born twice than once." (Quoted in Emil Block's Widerholt Erdenleben. Stuttgart: 1952, p.31)12
One may be surprised to note, however, that several of America's founding fathers were fascinated by and ultimately accepted the idea of reincarnation, as interest in the subject made its way across the Atlantic to America. Expressing his firm belief, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Finding myself to exist in the world, I believe I shall, in some shape or other, always exist." (Letter to George Whatley, May 23, 1785. The Works of Benjamin Franklin, editor, Jared Sparks. Boston: 1856, X, p. 174)13
In 1814, former U.S. President John Adams, who had been reading books about Hindu religion, wrote another ex-president, "the sage of Monticello," Thomas Jefferson, about the doctrine of reincarnation. After revolting against the Supreme Being, some souls were hurled, Adams wrote, "down to the regions of total darkness." They were then, the statesman said, "released from prison, permitted to ascend to earth and migrate into all sorts of animals, reptiles, birds, beasts, and men, according to their rank and character, and even into vegetables, and minerals, there to serve on probation. If they passed without reproach their several graduations, they were permitted to become cows and men. If as men they behaved well... they were restored to their original rank and bliss in Heaven." (Letter to Thomas Jefferson, March 1814. Correspondence of John Adams)14
In Europe, Napoleon was fond of telling his generals that in a previous life he was Charlemagne. (Emil Ludwig, Napoleon. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926 p. 245)15 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the greatest German poets, also believed in reincarnation and may have encountered the idea in his readings in Indian philosophy. Goethe, renowned as a dramatist and scientist, as well, once remarked, "I am certain that I have been here as I am now a thousand times before, and I hope to return a thousand times." (Memoirs of Johannes Falk. Leipzig: 1832. Reprinted in Goethe-Bibliothek, Berlin: 1911)16
Interest in reincarnation and Indian philosophy also ran strong among the American Transcendentalists, including Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. Emerson wrote, "It is a secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again... Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals and moumful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the window, sound and well, in some new and strange disguise." (The Selecled Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, editor, Brooks Atkinson, New York: Modern Library, 1950, p. 445)17 From the Katha Upanisad, one of the many books of ancient Indian philosophy in his library, Emerson quoted, "The soul is not bom; it does not die; it was not produced from anyone... Unborn, eternal, it is not slain, though the body is slain." (Emerson's Complete Works. Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1886, IV. p. 35)18
Thoreau, the philosopher of Walden Pond, wrote, "As far back as I can remember, I have unconsciously referred to the experiences of a previous state of existence." (The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Boston; Houghton Mifllin, 1949, 11, p. 306)19 Another sign of Thoreau's deep interest in reincarnation is a manuscript, discovered in 1926, entitled "The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmanas." This short work is an English translation of a story about reincarnation from an ancient Sanskrit history. The transmigration episode follows the lives of seven sages through progressive incarnations as hunters, princes, and animals. And Walt Whitman, in his poem "Song of Myself," writes,
I know I am deathless...
We have thus far exhausted
trillions of winters and summers,
There are trillions ahead, and
trillions ahead of them.
(Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 1st (1855) edition, editor, Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959)20
In France, famed author Honore Balzac wrote an entire novel about reincarnation, Seraphita. There Balzac states, "All human beings go through a previous life... Who knows how many fleshly forms the heir of heaven occupies before he can be brought to understand the value of that silence and solitude whose starry plains are but the vestibule of spiritual worlds?" (Balzac, La Comedie Humaine. Boston: Pratt, 1904, XXXIX, pp. 175-76)21
In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens explored an experience that hints at remembrances from past lives, deja-vu. "We all have some experience of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time -- of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances. (Chapter 39)22
And in Russia, the eminent Count Leo Tolstoy wrote, "As we live through thousands of dreams in our present life, so is our present life only one of many thousands of such lives which we enter from the other, more real life .. and then return after death. Our life is but one of the dreams of that more real life, and so it is endlessly, until the very last one, the very real life -- the life of God." (Moscow: Magazine, The Voice of Universal Love, 1908, No. 40, p. 634)23
The Modern Age
As we enter the twentieth century, we find the idea of reincarnation attracting the mind of one of the West's most influential artists, Paul Gauguin, who during his final years in Tahiti wrote that when the physical organism breaks up, "the soul survives." It then takes on another body, Gauguin wrote, "degrading or elevating according to merit or demerit." The artist believed that the idea of continued rebirth had first been taught in the West by Pythagoras, who learned it from the sages of ancient India. (Modern Thought and Catholicism, translator, Frank Lester Pleadwell. Privately printed, 1927. The original manuscript is now held by the St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri)24
U. S. auto magnate Henry Ford once told a newspaper interviewer, "I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was twenty-six." Ford said, "Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives." (San Francisco Examiner, August 28, 1928)25 In a similar fashion, U. S. general George S. Patton believed that he had acquired his military skills on ancient battlefields.
Reincarnation is a recurring theme in Ulysses, by Irish novelist and poet James Joyce. In one famous passage in this novel, Joyce's hero, Mr. Bloom, tells his wife, "Some people believe that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or on some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives." (First episode, "Calypso")26
Jack London made reincarnation the major theme of his novel The Star Rover, in which the central character says, "I did not begin when I was born, nor when I was conceived. I have been growing, developing through incalculable myriads of millenniums... All my previous selves have their voices, echoes, promptings in me... Oh, incalculable times again shall I be born, and yet the stupid dolts about me think that by stretching my neck with a rope they will make me cease." (New York: Macmillan, 1919, pp. 252-54)27
In his classic novel of the search for spiritual truth, Siddhartha, Nobel laureate Herman Hesse wrote, "He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other... None of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face: only time stood between one face and another." (New York: New Directions, 1951)28
Numerous scientists and psychologists have believed in reincarnation as well. One of the greatest modern psychologists, Carl Jung, used the concept of an eternal self that undergoes many births as a tool in his attempts to understand the deepest mysteries of the self and consciousness. "I could well imagine that I might have lived in former centuries and there encountered questions I was not yet able to answer; that I had to be born again because I had not fulfilled the task that was given to me,("Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Pantheon, 1963, p. 323)29 Jung said.
British biologist Thomas Huxley noted that "the doctrine of transmigration" was a "means of constructing a plausible vindication of the ways of the cosmos to man," and warned that "none but very hasty thinkers will reject it on the grounds of inherent absurdity. ("Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays. New York: Appleton, 1894, pp. 60-61)30
One of the leading figures in the field of psychoanalysis and human development, American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, is convinced that reincarnation goes to the very core of every man's belief system. ("Let us face it: deep down' nobody in his right mind can visualize his own existence without assuming that he has always lived and will live hereafter,"Gandhi's Truth. New York: Norton, 1969, p. 36)31 the author wrote.
Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest political figures of modern times and apostle of nonviolence, once explained how a practical understanding of reincarnation gave him hope for his dream of world peace. Gandhi said, ("I cannot think of permanent enmity between man and man, and believing as I do in the theory of rebirth, I live in the hope that if not in this birth, in some other birth I shall be able to hug all of humanity in friendly embrace."Young India, April 2, 1931, p. 54)32
In one of his most famous short stories, J. D. Salinger introduces Teddy, a precocious young boy who recalls his reincarnation experiences and speaks forthrightly about them. "It's so silly. All you do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody's done it thousands of times. Just because they don't remember, it doesn't mean they haven't done it. ("J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories. New York: Signet paperback, 1954)33
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, hero of the novel by the same name, whom author Richard Bach described as "that brilliant little fire that burns within us all," goes through a series of reincarnations that lead him from earth to a heavenly world and back again, to enlighten the less fortunate gulls. One of Jonathan's mentors inquires, "Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. ("New York: Macmillan, 1970, pp. 53-54)34
Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer often speaks of past lives, rebirth, and the immortality of the soul in his masterful short stories. "There is no death. How can there be death if everything is part of the Godhead? The soul never dies and the body is never really alive. ("A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962)35
And British poet laureate John Masefield, in his well-known poem about past and future lives, writes,
I hold that when a person dies
His soul returns again to earth;
Arrayed in some new flesh disguise
Another mother gives him birth
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the road again.
("A Creed," Collected Poems)36
Musician, songwriter, and celebrated ex-Beatle George Harrison's serious thinking about reincarnation is revealed in his private thoughts on interpersonal relationships. "Friends are all souls that we've known in other lives. We're drawn to each other. That's how I feel about friends. Even if I have only known them a day, it doesn't matter. I'm not going to wait till I have known them for two years, because anyway, we must have met somewhere before, you know. ("I, Me, Mine. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980)37
Reincarnation is once again attracting the minds of intellectuals and the general public in the West. Films, novels, popular songs, and periodicals now treat reincarnation with ever-increasing frequency, and millions of Westerners are rapidly joining ranks with the more than 1.5 billion people, including Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and members of other faiths, who have traditionally understood that life does not begin at birth nor end with death. But simple curiosity or belief is not sufficient. It is merely the first step in understanding the complete science of reincarnation, which includes knowledge of how to free oneself from the miserable cycle of birth and death.
Bhagavad-gita: The Timeless Sourcebook on Reincarnation
Many Westerners, in order to gain a deeper understanding about reincarnation, are turning to the original sources of knowledge about past and future lives. Among all available literatures, the Sanskrit Vedas of India are the oldest on earth and present the most comprehensive and logical explanations of the science of reincarnation, teachings that have maintained their viability and universal appeal for more than five thousand years.
The most fundamental information about reincarnation appears in Bhagavad-gita, the essence of the Upanisads and of all Vedic knowledge. The Gita was spoken fifty centuries ago by Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to His friend and disciple Arjuna on a battlefield in northern India. A battlefield is the perfect place for a discussion about reincarnation, for in combat, men directly confront the fateful questions of life. death, and the afterlife.
As Krsna begins to speak on the immortality of the soul, He tells Arjuna, "Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be." The Gita further instructs, "That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul." The soul -- here we speak of something so subtle that it is not immediately verifiable by the limited human mind and senses. Therefore, not everyone will be able to accept the existence of the soul. Krsna informs Arjuna, "Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all."
Accepting the existence of the soul is, however, not merely a matter of faith. Bhagavad-gita appeals to the evidence of our senses and logic, so we may accept its teachings with some degree of rational conviction and not blindly, as dogma.
It is impossible to understand reincarnation unless one knows the difference between the actual self (the soul) and the body. The Gita helps us see the nature of the soul by the following example. "As the sun alone illuminates all this universe, so does the living entity, one within the body, illuminate the entire body by consciousness."
Consciousness is concrete evidence of the presence of the soul within the body. On a cloudy day, the sun may not be visible, but we know it is there in the sky by the presence of sunlight. Similarly, we may not be able to directly perceive the soul, but we may conclude it is there by the presence of consciousness. In the absence of consciousness, the body is simply a lump of dead matter. Only the presence of consciousness makes this lump of dead matter breathe, speak, love, and fear. In essence, the body is a vehicle for the soul, through which it may fulfill its myriad material desires. The Gita explains that the living entity within the body is "seated as on a machine made of the material energy." The soul falsely identifies with the body, carrying its different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Just as an automobile cannot function without the presence of a driver, similarly, the material body cannot function without the presence of the soul.
As one grows older, this distinction between the conscious self and the physical body becomes more obvious. Within his lifetime a person can observe that his body is constantly changing. It does not endure, and time proves the child ephemeral. The body comes into existence at a certain time, grows, matures, produces by-products (children), and gradually dwindles and dies. The physical body is thus unreal, for it will, in due time, disappear. As the Gita explains, "Of the nonexistent there is no endurance." But despite all the changes of the material body, consciousness, a symptom of the soul within, remains unchanged. ("Of the eternal there is no change.") Therefore, we may logically conclude that consciousness possesses an innate quality of permanence that enables it to survive the dissolution of the body. Krsna tells Arjuna, "For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time... He is not slain when the body is slain."
But if the soul is "not slain when the body is slain," then what becomes of it? The answer given in the Bhagavad-gita is that the soul enters another body. This is reincarnation. This concept may be diffcult for some people to accept, but it is a natural phenomenon, and the Gita gives logical examples to aid our understanding: "As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change."
In other words, man reincarnates even in the course of one lifetime. Any biologist will tell you that the body's cells are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. In other words, each of us has a number of "different" bodies in this very life. The body of an adult is completely different from the body the same person had as an infant. Yet despite bodily changes, the person within remains the same. Something similar happens at the time of death. The self undergoes a final change of body. The Gita says, "As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones." Thus the soul remains entrapped in an endless cycle of births and deaths. "One who has taken his birth is sure to die, and after death one is sure to take birth again," the Lord tells Arjuna.
According to the Vedas, there are 8,400,000 species of life, beginning with the microbes, rising through the fish, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, and animals to the humans and demigods. According to their desires, the living entities perpetually take birth in these species.
The mind is the mechanism that directs these transmigrations, propelling the soul to newer and newer bodies. The Gita explains, "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, .. that state he will attain without fail [in his next life]." Everything we have thought and done during our life makes an impression on the mind, and the sum total of all these impressions influences our final thoughts at death. According to the quality of these thoughts, material nature awards us a suitable body. Therefore, the type of body that we have now is the expression of our consciousness at the time of our last death.
"The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of ear, eye, tongue, nose, and sense of touch, which are grouped about the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects." the Gita explains. Further, the path of reincarnation does not always lead uphill; the human being is not guaranteed a human birth in his next life. For example, if one dies with the mentality of a dog, then he will in his next life receive the eyes, ears, nose, etc., of a dog, thus allowing him to enjoy canine pleasures. Lord Krsna confirms the fate of such an unfortunate soul, saying, "When one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom."
According to Bhagavad-gita, humans who do not inquire about their nonphysical, higher nature are compelled by the laws of karma to continue in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, sometimes appearing as humans, sometimes as animals, and sometimes as plants or insects.
Our existence in the material world is due to the multiple karmic reactions of this and previous lives, and the human body provides the only loophole through which the materially conditioned soul can escape. By properly utilizing the human form, one can solve all the problems of life (birth, death, disease, and old age) and break the endless cycle of reincarnation. If, however, a soul, having evolved to the human platform, wastes his life by engaging only in activities for sense pleasure, he can easily create sufficient karma in this present life to keep him entangled in the cycle of birth and death for thousands upon thousands of lives. And they may not all be human.
Lord Krsna says, "The foolish cannot understand how a living entity can quit his body, nor can they understand what sort of body he enjoys under the spell of the modes of nature. But one whose eyes are trained in knowledge can see all this. The endeavoring transcendentalists, who are situated in self-realization, can see all this clearly. But those whose minds are not developed and who are not situated in self-realization cannot see what is taking place, though they may try to."
A soul fortunate enough to obtain a human body should seriously endeavor for self-realization, to understand the principles of reincarnation and become free from repeated birth and death. We can't afford not to.
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