Reincarnation, Metempsychosis or the Transmigration of Souls. The Universal Truth About the Nature of Eternal Life
There is a view of the nature of Eternal Life that is common to all the Worlds Great Religions though, more often than not, censored, suppressed or else kept hidden.
This section deals with one of the eternal questions of life, that is 'What happens when I die?'. Closely related questions are 'Is there a soul?', 'Is there an afterlife?' and 'What is the nature of the soul?'. I hope to provide the reader here with answers to these timeless questions.
So what is the truth about eternal life? To the Atheist or the Materialist, the whole idea of life after death is an absurdity. To them it might seem like some invention designed to deal with the fear of death, or some fantasy that allows religious people to better cope with the passing away of loved ones. The debate between those who believe in eternal life and those who dismiss the idea of it, has been going on throughout history. The kinds of people who deny the reality of eternal life will often also have materialist assumptions. That is they will usually suppose that our existence is based on our physical bodies with nothing else being in existence apart from the material Universe. They will find it impossible to see how anything of what we are can survive after our bodies have stopped working and decayed away. Or else they'll counter the idea of eternal life with the objection that it is something which can never be proven. In another section of this website I show how the truth about eternal life actually works (See Nature of Reality section) and I also show how indeed it can be proven (See Everyone is God section). Here I shall present the common truth about eternal life that is found at the mystical heart of all world religion namely reincarnation. And I also show how it is that in religions not normally associated with reincarnation, such as Christianity, the truth has been censored, made heresy and then suppressed.
The religiously minded believe and have believed through the ages, all sorts of different stories concerning the details of the passage of the soul. Most Christians and Muslims of this world believe in the idea of 'resurrection'. That is after death we return to life with the same physical bodies that we had during our lives on Earth. This 'resurrected' body will then inhabit for all eternity either some sort of paradise i.e. Heaven or else will be condemned to some sort of Hell. Often it will also be believed that we may meet again deceased friends and loved ones, who will also be similarly physically reconstituted in this imagined afterworld.
Another version of the afterlife believed by people of the Mormon faith holds that when a good Mormon dies then he or she will become a god of a new universe and inhabit a planet of their own along with their spouse or spouses. Then eternity is spent in a state of bliss producing star children who are the new souls for the new lives that will inhabit the new universe in which the perfected Mormon has become God. This is what is implied by the much quoted aphorism invented by one of the early presidents of the Mormon church which goes 'As man is, God once was and as God is, man may become.'
However there is another widely held belief about eternal life which is common to the mystical heart of all world religion. This is the well known but not universally believed idea called reincarnation or the transmigration of souls. At first it may seem that this is an idea which is exclusive to the Eastern religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. However when we examine the other religions more closely then we find one of two things. Firstly that the idea of reincarnation has either been once prevalent but then later suppressed. Or else secondly we discover that reincarnation is believed by the mystics at the heart of their respective religions and also by the members of certain esoteric sects within World religions that we don't normally associate with reincarnation. We when study closely all the main religions of this world, then we find that the idea of reincarnation occurs again and again.
It is true that there exists in the Worlds religions many different and conflicting ideas about eternal life. But it is when we examine the history of the World's great religions and understand how doctrines become changed for political ends, that we see how truths and in this case truths about eternal life may be suppressed. I will be showing how in the case of Christianity, the idea of reincarnation was quite systematically made heresy and banned even though it was a widely held belief in the early church. Also in world religion, it has often been the case that important and ineffable truths have often been communicated through the invention of fantasies and simplistic stories that the common people could more easily grasp. That is, religious truths are often two tiered. There is the actual truth for the mystics and the more esoterically minded followers of religion, i.e. the kinds of people more deeply involved in religion and also more interested in knowing about matters of life after death; then there are the fairy tales and stories of miracles which are created to capture the imaginations of the laity and common folk. These would be the majority of the followers of their respective religions, who don't actually want to spend a lot of time thinking about the true nature of eternal life but are looking for reassurance and a view of the afterlife that they can easily digest and absorb. Hence we have popular stereotypes of what eternal life is, such as heaven being a place in the clouds or else some other plane of existence where we go spend the rest of eternity with our deceased friends and loved ones. Scenarios such as these are useful fictions which through history have served a necessary purpose. However when taken literally they don't stand up to critical analysis and deflect attention from the real truth about the nature of eternal life, which is reincarnation. Therefore I will show how this has been the case in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Also I'll show that in all these three major religions, reincarnation has been a central and integral aspect, even though this is sometimes in the background or else is hidden for various reasons.
I'll now go through some of the major religions of the world and discuss the idea of reincarnation in relation to these main faiths. Firstly we'll discuss the religious traditions which are not commonly associated with reincarnation. To start I will discuss judaism, christianity and islam in this order which reflects the order in which they first emerged. I will show that the belief in reincarnation is or has been an important aspect of all these three faiths. Later on I'll be dealing with Hinduism and Buddhism. We'll deal with these two faith traditions last mainly because the idea of reincarnation is a central belief in both, therefore the case for the importance of reincarnation in these two religions is very straight forward and easy to make. Also because the idea of reincarnation is commonly identified and closely associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism, the case for reincarnation in both these faiths is a less interesting one to make. Anyway... we now examine the idea of reincarnation in some of the major religions of the world.
Reincarnation in Judaism
In modern times, matters of eternal life in Judaism are seriously considered mainly by the mystically inclined Kabbalists who believe in reincarnation. Kabbalah being the name for esoteric Judaism. Though if you asked many Jews and Rabbis concerning this question, they would reject the idea of reincarnation. This is only out of ignorance of their long history and venerable tradition.
Kaballah, also known as the hidden teachings of Moses, can be considered the mystical heart and spiritual well spring of Judaism. It has a very long history, going back even as far as ancient Egypt. At the heart of Kaballah is the belief in reincarnation. The Zohar which is the central text of the Kaballah from mediaeval times onwards is unequivocal. In it is to be found the passage...
'The souls must re-enter the Absolute, from whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this end they must develop the perfections; the germ of which is planted in them. And if they have not developed these traits in this one life, then they must commence another, a third, and so forth.'
The founder of the orthodox Lubavitcher Hasidim sect Bal Shem Tov who was a Kabbalist Rabbi appropriately enough also believed firmly in reincarnation. Lubavitcher Jews can be recognized by their distinctive black dress, archaic looking black hats and long side burns. So at the heart of this large Jewish sect is the belief in reincarnation.
Historical we know that the Pharisees, which was a strict Jewish sect that existed around the time of Jesus held reincarnation as one of their central tenets. It is interesting to note that Saint Paul of Tarsus, who was a major contributor to the New Testament in the Bible, started out as a Pharisee. Also the 1st century Jewish commentator and historian Josephus tells us that the Essenes were thought to believe in reincarnation. The Essenes were the Jewish sect who wrote the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. The were also known to have had a keen interest in the early Kabbalah, and because reincarnation is a central tenet of the Kabbalah, this supports the idea that the Essenes believed in reincarnation.
Today, most Jewish Rabbis mainly consider practical earthly matters, i.e. questions concerning morality and ritual. Matters concerning the after life and the nature God have effectively become the exclusive domain of the Kabbalists or Jewish mystics. This is why one would not normally associate reincarnation with modern Judaism. It is simply because the matter is not really an integral part of the religion on a day to day level and so it is not really thought about very much. However when we explore Judaism's mystical heart, the Kabbalah, then the belief in reincarnation is firm and strong. But because the Kabbalah has for so long been a hidden and secret tradition, correspondingly its truths have not been very widely distributed, even among practicing Jews. To most people, the fact that the Kabbalists believe in reincarnation, only surfaces in the very occasional freak news story. For instance a couple of years ago when a Kabbalist Rabbi in Israel made the appalling claim that the Holocaust victims were being punished for the sins of their past lives. Interestingly, quite recently, there has been a surge of interest in the Jewish Kabbalah. This has been due to its commercialization by new age opportunists and also due to celebrity dabbling in the Kabbalah by the likes of people such as the singer Madonna and the comedian Rosanne Barr. Hopefully in the future, this will help to make the ideas of the Kabbalah much more widespread.
Reincarnation in Christianity
One doesn't normal associate the idea of reincarnation with Christianity. However if we examine the early history of the Christianity then we discover that many early Christians did indeed believe in reincarnation including some very prominent figures. We know that at least a half dozen or so of the Church Fathers believed in reincarnation, namely the likes of Clement, Origen, Justin Martyr, St Gregory, Arnobius and St Jerome. Also if we read the Gospels then it is clear that the disciples of Jesus certainly entertained the idea of reincarnation. We may infer this from the passage in John 9:2 where the disciples ask Jesus, "Was this man born blind because of his sins or because of his parents's sin?". This question certainly contains within it a reference to reincarnation, unless we suppose that the disciples thought a foetus could sin whilst in its mothers womb.
Early Christianity included some esoteric sects which came to known as the Gnostics, which means 'those who know'. The Gnostics were firm believers in reincarnation. Also the popular mystery traditions that were current during the formation of the early church, such as Mithraism and the Dionysian mysteries, have reincarnation as central tenets. This fact is relevant when we consider that these belief systems were an integral part of the loose confederation that was the early Christian church. Christianity in the early stages of its evolution consisted of a number of diverse and often competing sects. This was before any orthodoxy was recognizable. Much has been written about how the mysteries of Mithrais and Dionysus became incorporated into the Christian faith. For instance the fact that the birthday of Mithrais was the 25th of December and also that he was a godman who was 'hung on a tree', died and then rose again on the third day. When we consider these and other such facts, it would seem that aspects of these ancient mystery traditions were incorporated in later Christianity, because at the beginning they were an integral part of the religion as were the Gnostics. This supports the idea that reincarnation formed an important aspect of Christian belief during the early formative stages of the religion.
But if many early christians believed in reincarnation, then how did we arrive at the situation that we have today? Modern day Christians throughout the world believe in a version of eternal life called resurrection as opposed to reincarnation. This is a belief in a returning to life after death but retaining the physical body that one had during ones earthly existence. Also most Christians today would reject the idea that reincarnation was once accepted by many of the early Christians. It is when we examine history that we discover exactly where and when the idea was suppressed. It was in the Second Church Council of Constantinople in the year 553 ad that the idea of reincarnation was made heresy. This came about through the instigation of the Roman Emperor Justinian. His motivation behind this was that he thought that if people were given one earthly life only, then they would be more diligent and obedient. 'Give them one life only', he said, 'Give them one life then give them heaven or hell.' Even the Pope at that time, who was named Vigilius, had reservations about what was happening. The matter was put to a vote but the participants of this council were deliberately composed of heads of the church known to oppose the idea of reincarnation. Because of this the Pope himself boycotted the actual vote.
It is as a direct result of this political manipulation that the doctrine of reincarnation would become banished from the orthodoxy of Christianity, right up to present times. So when Christians today say any words to the effect that reincarnation is somehow un-Christian then they are really echoing the sentiments of a Roman Emperor whose main interest in religion was as a tool for political control. The truth is that before reincarnation was made heresy, many Christians did believe in reincarnation. Afterwards once having a belief in reincarnation was made heretical, then the idea was certainly actively suppressed as heretical beliefs generally were. So reincarnation was literally consigned to the flames, as were undoubtedly some of the heretics who subscribed to the idea.
Reincarnation in Islam
The picture we have in Islam concerning the nature of eternal life is one where only a small minority of those Muslims belonging to some of the more esoteric sects believe in reincarnation. The vast majority of Muslims in the world today and also all throughout the history of Islam, believe in the idea of resurrection. The most widely accepted version of the afterlife in Islam is one where after you die then first you are interviewed in your grave by an angel. Depending on you answers you are then assigned to a temporary state of Heaven or a temporary state of Hell. Then at the end of time you are resurrected with the same physical body that you had in your previous life. In this body you are assessed by Allah according to your deeds in the Last Judgement. Depending on the verdict you are then sent to eternal paradise or else eternal damnation. This is what the average mainstream Muslim believes. The Koran doesn't really make it clear one way or the other whether it supports the idea of resurrection or that of reincarnation. However we do find in Islam the idea of the 'batin' which suppose the existence of hidden meanings in the Koran and the sayings of Muhammad. This is the idea that Muhammad withheld key esoteric doctrines from most Muslims and only imparted these truths to a select group of the early Muslim community, that is those he felt would be best able to grasp them. When we consider that the sects which believe in reincarnation such as the Druze, Ismaili, Alawis, Alevi, Yazidi and various Sufi groups, are exactly those branches of Islam associated with its more esoteric aspects, then it is reasonable to suppose that reincarnation may be one of those hidden teachings of Muhammad. This pattern is very similar to the situation that we have in Christianity and Judaism where a fantastical and wishful but easy to grasp version of eternal life is given to most of the religions believers, but a more abstract and mysterious vision of the afterlife is reserved for a select minority. So even though most Muslims don't believe in reincarnation, at Islam's mystical heart we find a clear and firm belief in reincarnation.
Reincarnation in Hinduism
In Hinduism, the idea of reincarnation is a central doctrine and universally believed by all people of the Hindu faith. In the premiere holy book of Hinduism which is the Bhagavad Gita, reincarnation is described thus...
'As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body from childhood, to youth, to old age, the soul inhabits another body at the time of death'
In one of the Upanishads which are a collection of holy books, also sometimes referred to as the Vedanta, which means the summing up of the Vedas, reincarnation as well as the law of karma is elaborated upon in this way...
'As the body is augmented by food and water, so the individual self, augmented by its aspirations, sense contact, visual impressions, and delusion, assumes successive forms in accordance with its actions.' - Shvetasvatara Upanishads
So without a doubt, reincarnation is one of the central tenets of the Hindu faith. Where there has been debate within the religion over the centuries, is on the question of what is reincarnating. The two main opposing camps are made of firstly those who believe that the soul of the person is the same as that of God, i.e. that atman or self is the same as Brahman, i.e. God. Secondly there is the more accessible position of those who believe in many individuated and distinctly separate souls. I deal with this important issue in other sections of this website. However whether it is only the undivided and indivisible soul of God that is transmigrating through all the life forms of the universe or else it is a myriad number of different and separate souls being reborn, the case is still reincarnation.
Reincarnation in Buddhism
Like Hinduism, reincarnation is a central tenet of the Buddhist faith. This is a natural thing, seeing as Buddhism can be viewed as an offshoot of Hinduism. Buddha himself emerged out of a context and tradition that already firmly believed in reincarnation. However it seems that in his teachings Buddha introduced some new insights and amendments to existing doctrine, regarding reincarnation. This has led to some confusion and debate as to whether Buddha really believed in the idea of reincarnation. It seems that buddha introduced the notion of 'rebirth' as something subtly distinct from reincarnation, and also the idea of the 'entity' as something distinct from the idea of the soul. Taken together with Buddha's doctrine of 'anatma' or 'anatman', which means 'no self'; this has led some people to believe that because there is no self to reincarnate, therefore Buddha was saying that there is no reincarnation. This position has mainly been taken up by those involved with the Theravada or 'lesser vehicle' traditions. However, in the Buddhist scriptures, Buddha makes himself clear on the extreme interpretation of the idea of 'no self'. thus he says...
'And I, O monks, am accused wrongly, vainly, falsely, and inappropriately by some ascetics and Brahmanas: "A denier is the ascetic Gotama, he teaches the destruction, annihilation, and perishing of the being that now exists." These ascetics accuse me of being what I am not, O monks, and of saying what I do not say.'
Also the idea of reincarnation is implicit in the universally held belief within Buddhism that enlightenment, or the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, is only obtained through the cumulative efforts of a succession of numerous different lifetimes.
A way of resolving the controversy surrounding Buddha's doctrines of 'rebirth' and 'no self' is to understand these ideas in relation to another controversy that has always existed in Hinduism and is still a matter of dispute right up to present times. This is the debate over whether the atman, or the soul of a person, is the same or else is distinct from Brahman, which is the ultimate term for God in Hinduism. So the issue here and the same one that Buddha was implicitly addressing was the question of 'what is it that is reincarnating?'. The choice of answers boils down to two distinct options, that is either one believes that there are many, perhaps even an infinite number of souls transmigrating, or else the alternative position which is the idea that there is a single undivided and indivisible soul which becomes embodied in an infinite sequence of separate lives. Put another way, there is the belief that the human soul is distinct and separate from God but then there is the more controversial belief that a person's soul and innermost identity is ultimately one and the same as that of God. i.e. atman is equal to Brahman or to say that the real nature of a person's being is God. Seen in this light, Buddha's doctrine of 'anatman' or 'no self' can therefore be interpreted to mean that there is no self that is distinct from the Buddhist Void; The Void being the equivalent in it's given attributes to Brahman or God. And so Buddha's doctrine of rebirth, is a subtle assertion of a distinct opinion concerning the nature of reincarnation and what is being reincarnated. It is certainly not an idea that is competing with the idea of reincarnation itself. So despite, certain misunderstandings which have occurred in the history of Buddhism, reincarnation has always been and still is one of the central features of the Buddhist faith.
Summary and Conclusion
So there is a case to be made for reincarnation being a common unifying thread throughout all World religion. Far from being exclusively an exotic 'Eastern' doctrine, reincarnation can be said to be part of the Western tradition as well. Furthermore, when we consider that many of the great luminaries of ancient Greek civilization such as Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras, and also others who were involved in the various mysteries, were firm believers in reincarnation; then the idea of reincarnation really lies at the foundations of Western civilization. We then see clearly that all the other ideas about eternal life, are really imaginative fantasies that have been promoted and made orthodoxy either through the need to give people something they can easily absorb or else because of political motivations. It is when we really take religion apart that we are able to arrive at a unified understanding of central doctrines such as the nature of eternal life. By studying the world's faiths more closely we can see that the idea of reincarnation is a common denominator which I believe will one day facilitate the future unification of world religion.
Also apart from reincarnation being a central idea at the esoteric heart of all the Worlds Great Faith Traditions, it is also a belief central to some more fringe spiritual movements and organizations such as Freemasonry, The Rosicrucians, Rastafarianism and Scientology.
It is a healthy trend that today and in recent times, belief in reincarnation is on the increase. Poll after poll has shown that a steady and growing number of people are coming to believe in the idea of reincarnation. This trend has been particularly pronounced in industrialized Western countries. For instance, some representative numbers are that in the United states and Europe, around 25% of people believe in reincarnation, the figure for the United Kingdom is around 30%. The growth in the numbers of people who believe in reincarnation are demonstrated by these figures: in 1968, 23% of people in France believed in reincarnation versus 28% in 1990. Comparable figures for the United Kingdom over the same time period are 18% versus 30%.
I was interested to read that the Druze sect in Islam, which believes in reincarnation, is today growing quite rapidly in the Middle East. One reason for this is perhaps that this particular offshoot of Islam is offering a more reasonable view of the after life. But back to the West, where once belief in the transmigration of souls was seen as the reserve for eccentrics or oddballs, these days the idea is quite commonly accepted. It is worth noting that young people, that is those in the 15 to 30 age group, are disproportionately represented in the statistics which show a growing belief in reincarnation, i.e. there exists a greater tendency among the young to subscribe to a belief in reincarnation. This trend encourages the hope that perhaps in the future, the idea of reincarnation will become the dominant doctrine concerning the nature of eternal life.