Reincarnation : is a doctrine that rests on the belief that after the death of the physical body, there is some element left of each person that then goes on to survive bodily death.  This element is independent of a person's physical being, and after death goes on to be reborn into another physical body.

The idea of reincarnation has been well established in Eastern religion, although it has appeared all over the globe.  Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that reincarnation could be as old as religion itself as it has appeared in the beliefs of many primitive cultures as well as in some of the more highly developed religions.

Currently, reincarnation is experiencing an increase in popularity in the West, as some Christians find the reincarnation of the soul a more attractive proposition.  Reincarnation is becoming the alternative to the orthodox Christian view that the soul passes into heaven, purgatory or hell after physical death.  Should the Christian view be correct then the soul has but once chance to reach the goal of heaven and determine it's fate.  Reincarnation however offers the chance of the soul to be reborn and work it's way forwards or perhaps backwards.  A good comparison is like moving up or down on the rungs of a ladder.  A well lived previous life would enable the soul to advance upwards on the ladder, whereas a life badly lived would cause the reverse and the soul to move downwards.  One of the particular attractions of reincarnation is that it helps to account for many of life's misfortunes and help to answer the question as to why some people are ultimately much more fortunate than others.

Reincarnation plays a major role in Hinduism, a religion from the East.  Within the Hindu religion are some sacred writings known as the Upanishads.  The Upanishads state that even if the soul does enter a hell or heaven after death, this will be a temporary arrangement only, because the soul will then return to earth.  in association with this idea is the doctrine of Karma. In its basic form this is an idea that asserts that at the birth of an individual there are a series of balance sheets full of liabilities and assets accumulated from the previous life.

The Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad, speaking about man's soul, states that:

"According as were his works and walks in (another) life, so he becomes.  He that does righteously becomes righteous.  He that does evil, becomes evil.  He becomes holy through holy works and evil through evil.  

The Bhagavad Gita is possibly one of the most widely known of Indian religious writings and this also affirms the doctrine of reincarnation.

"Worn-out garments 
Are shed by the body:
Worn out bodies
Are shed by the dweller
Within the body;
New bodies are donned
By the dweller, like garments

One perhaps less desirable effect of the doctrine of reincarnation was to assert the idea that one could also pass to much lower states than the human form.  Indeed one could be born regressively into an animal form or into a lower caste.  This has helped to reinforce the caste system.

Both of the Hindu theories of Karma and reincarnation have passed into Buddhism.  Indirectly the name Buddha itself implies reincarnation because the term Buddha does not refer to an individual but to a type.  The word Buddha itself comes from Sanskritt and means 'one who is fully enlightened'.  Siddartha Gautama, often known as the historical Buddha lived in Northern India about 500 B.C. and it is believed that he was only one of a succession of Buddhas who had prepared for their reincarnation as a Buddha and supremely enlightened teacher.  Before becoming a Buddha it was necessary to pass through a stage of being a Bodhisattva.  It is said that Siddartha Gautama's preparation for Buddhahood began under the previous Buddha Dipankara many eons ago.  In the distant future another Buddha, Maitreya, is due to appear.

For Buddhists, rebirth is not so desirable unless you are destined for Buddhahood including the ultimate aim for a state of such perfect enlightenment that the whole process of reincarnation is no longer necessary.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes how after death, the consciousness: 'having no object on which to rest, will be tossed about by the wind, riding on the horse of breath.  At about that time the fierce wind of karma, terrific and hard to bear, will drive you onwards, from behind in dreadful gusts.  And after a while the thought will occur to you: 'Oh what would I not give to possess a body'  After a time the soul will be enticed with visions of humans and animals copulating and will feel a compulsion to take the place of one of the parties.  'Do not try to take the place of one of them!'  The Book of the Dead counsels. 'The feeling which you would experience would make you faint away, just at the moment when egg and sperm are about to unite.  And afterwards you will have been conceived as a human being or as an animal' (62)."

Although the doctrine of reincarnation is slowly becoming more popular in the West, traditionally it has experienced quite a hard passage there.  In the period known as the Hermetica which is the time immediately before and immediately after the birth of Christ; reincarnation appears in the Graeco-Egyptian esoteric writings and Plato.  In a fragment translated by GRS Mead, in his Thrice Greatest Hermes, it is stated:

"From one Soul of the universe are all Souls derived...Of these Souls are there many changes, some into a more fortunate estate, and some quite contrary.  And they which are creeping things are changed into those of watery things living on the land; and airy ones into men.  Human souls that lay hold of immortality are changed into holy powers.  And so they go into the sphere of the Gods...And this is the most perfect glory of the soul...

Not all human souls but only the pious ones are divine.  Once separated from the body and after the struggle to acquire piety, which consists of knowing God and injuring none, such a soul becomes all intelligence.  The impious soul, however, punishes itself by seeking a human body to enter into, for no other body can receive a human soul; it cannot enter the body of an animal devoid of reason.  Divine law preserves the human soul from such infamy.' (321)."  

Of course the latter is in conflict with the Hindu and Buddhist belief that it is possible to regress into an animal state.  However the Hermetic writings did hold some influence over the early Church Fathers.  Possibly one of the most influential of the fathers was a man called Origen, who did teach a form of reincarnation.  There is some debate about whether or not he taught that the soul could pass into the present world.  However he taught that souls that existed in previous worlds would be reborn into future worlds.  It wasn't long before Origen's teachings were condemned by the church and eventually the Second Council of Constantinople in A.D. 553 'anathermatized' the theory of reincarnation.

The theory at this point may have disappeared completely had it not been for various underground Gnostic sects who continued the theory sometimes even above ground in open defiance of the Church.

Some of these sects included: the Balkan Bogomils and the Albigenses who flourished for a while in Southern France both being catharist sects of the middle ages.  Unfortunately for them they were eventually crushed by the Church in the 13th century, leaving reincarnation a matter of heresay.

In the West the theory now played little part, although some traces of it did appear among the writings of various esoteric schools of thought including: Renaissance Hermetists, Rosicrucians and Cabalists.  Slowly the theory of reincarnation began to emerge again under these schools.  The idea of reincarnation has held appeal for many philosophers including: Goethe, Heine, Shopenhauer and Thoreau.  Clifford Bax's The Traveller's Tale is an astounding 20th century literary work about reincarnation, which details the story of a soul that is reincarnated successively as:

"a Stone Age savage, a Babylonian, a Greek scribe, a Roman soldier, a medieval bishop, a modern English vicar and lastly a spiritual teacher."

At each stage the soul learnt a different lesson until finally reaching enlightenment and it's final release from earthly life.  'When the teacher is murdered by a jealous cynic his soul has a vision of all his previous lives and then suddenly feels itself free.'

"The brilliant crystal bursts;
A crash of thunder booms along my brain,
And the vast sea of life laps me no more.
The universe without and I within
Burn into one soul diamond-point of light,
Not great nor small but measureless and the sum
of what ever shall be, is or was."

Under normal circumstances it is very difficult to prove whether or not there is a strong case for the theory of reincarnation.  In a normal life it would probably be very difficult to function normally if past lives were constantly being remembered.  However some interesting cases of alleged reincarnation have emerged over recent years.  Recently it has been found that through the use of hypnosis and altered states of consciousness, there is a growing body of evidence, that suggests that the whole concept of reincarnation merits careful and thorough investigation.

Source: Information and excerpts for this article: Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, edited by Richard Cavendish.  Consultant: J.B. Rhine Publisher: Penguin Group 27, Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ England ISBN: 0 14 019190 9

Useful Links
The Confederate General and Connecticut Yankee; A Past Life Revealed
The MBS author Richard Craze book site  - Offers a free e-book about reincarnation.

Recommended Reading
Someone Else's Yesterday - Jeff Keene's compelling reincarnation case history.


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