“As a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, turns it into another, newer and more beautiful shape, even so does the self, after having thrown away this body and dispelled its ignorance, make unto himself another …”
– Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad
The doctrine of rebirth, commonly called reincarnation, is no longer the prodigy it once was in the West. In recent years the subject has been popularized by lecturers, religious teachers, and a great number of books that have appeared. Also, in the wake of the controversial Bridey Murphy story, hypnotists – drawing room and professional – have probed the mysteries of regression, often with contradictory results.
Under the pressure of questioning by their lay members, clergymen of various faiths have had to re-examine their respective theologies to see what, if anything, they have to say about the idea of pre-existence.
Doctrine Of Rebirth
Roman Catholics, as well as the more orthodox and conservative Christian bodies, reject the idea of a soul’s returning to earth in a succession of lives, probably because such a concept conflicts with the doctrine of redemption and bodily resurrection.
A number of liberal Protestant thinkers, on the other hand, have found the case for reincarnation a compelling one, not unsupported by their own scripture.
They point to passages in both the Old and New Testaments which seem to imply a belief in palingenesis.
For example, in the book of Malachi, the prophet declares:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
At the time Malachi wrote his prophecy, Elijah had been dead many years. Therefore, it could be assumed that he might reincarnate again.
Later, in the New Testament (Matthew XVI:13), the disciples tell Jesus that some of the people think he is Elijah; others that he is John the Baptist come back; still others, that he is Jeremiah or one of the other prophets returned in another body.
Again, in St. John’s Gospel (IX:34), the disciples ask Jesus concerning a certain blind man, whether his affliction was the result of some sin he had committed in a former life.
Even Catholic churchmen have not been unanimous in repudiating belief in all forms of rebirth. Belgian Cardinal Mercier, for one, declared that with respect to the assumption that the soul returns to earth many times and maintains consciousness of its personality, “We do not see that reason, if left to itself, would declare this to be impossible or certainly false.”
Another Catholic prelate who reportedly accepted the doctrine of reincarnation and asserted that such a belief did not conflict with the dogma of the Church, was Archbishop Passavalli of Italy (d. 1897).
Some of the Church Fathers of the first centuries of the Christian era believed in pre-existence of the Soul, and several (like Justin Martyr and Annobius) apparently believed in a theory of palingenesis similar to that held by the Hindus.
A small number of these early Christian mystics reconciled the seeming paradox of many lives and a single resurrection of the body by declaring that the resurrected body of the “last days” would be a composite of those lived before.
Despite the Church’s official opposition to the belief in reincarnation, the doctrine continued to flourish among secret and heretical Christian sects.
In this class must certainly be included such groups as the Manicheans, the Priscillians in Spain; the Cathars who numbered among their members the ill-fated Waldensians of France; the Paulicians of Armenia; and the Transcendentalists of Germany.
To trace the history of the doctrine of rebirth back to its original source is almost impossible. If vanished continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria did exist, it probably was first taught there. It is said that death as we know it was unknown until man fell from his high estate.
Be that as it may, the belief in reincarnation and karma appeared in India at an early date. It is referred to in the Atharva Veda, the Laws of Manu, the Bhagavat Purana, and in the various Upanishads.
In the sixth century B.C., it became a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. And with that faith it spread to China, Tibet, Ceylon, Burma, Indo-China, Korea and Japan.
Among the ancient Greeks, belief in reincarnation made its appearance first among the mystery schools, such as that of Orpheus, which no doubt had received it from Indian sources.
It passed quickly from religious doctrine into the area of philosophy, where it was taught by such eminent thinkers as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Empedocles, and Heraclitus.
The Romans, to whom so much of the Greek philosophical heritage commended itself, gave serious thought to the concept of multiple earthly lives. Among those supporting it were Cicero, Seneca, Ovid, Virgil and Sallust. The Emperor Julian believed himself to be a reincarnation of Alexander the Great. And the poet Ennius said it had been revealed to him that he had lived before as Homer, the immortal bard of Greece.
There is, in fact, a long and impressive roster of prominent thinkers and literati who have embraced the concept in modern times. They include philosophers Giordano Bruno, Leibnitz, Hume, Lessing, Schlegel, Fichte, Herder, Schopenhauer and Emerson.
Among artists, to mention but a few, there are such diverse figures as Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Longfellow; Wagner, Mahler; Salvador Dali, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin, and others.
Despite its long and honorable history, however, the deeper implications and meaning of rebirth are only vaguely understood by people in the West today.
The questions that most commonly arise are: If I have lived before, why do I not remember anything of my past lives? Why does the soul re-enter another physical body when it is often so glad to be free of the whole miserable mess on earth?
For an adequate answer to these queries, it is necessary first to direct one’s attention to the nature and his-tory of the permanent entity that is believed to reincarnate – the soul.
Westerners, when they think of the soul at all, loosely imagine some immaterial, formless luminosity; or a kind of etheric, spiritualized double of individualized man. Asked to define soul, persons of any given group-even of the same religious denomination – would present a surprising variety of descriptions.
This is quite to be expected in view of the fact that theologians themselves have provided confused and often contradictory opinions concerning the matter.
From earliest times, Christian exegetes have discussed the soul at great length without actually defining it in an easy-to-grasp, concrete way. Instead, they have referred to it in such abstract terms as incorporeal, mutable, imperishable, volitional, cognitive, and so on.
“If you wish a definition of what the soul is,” wrote St. Augustine, “I have a ready answer. It seems to me to be a certain kind of substance, sharing in reason, fitted to rule the body.”
But one cannot help wondering what kind of substance – a wraithlike vapor, a gob of ectoplasm, a ray of light, a sub-atomic particle? The theologians do not venture to say.
The ancient Hindu sages, on the other hand, were never afraid to come to grips with such mystical problems. They gave the soul size and appearance – something you could envision within the framework of human apperception.
The soul, declares the Katha Upanishad (II.13), is a person, compressed in form to the size of one’s thumb, who dwells in the middle of the body (the heart) “like a smokeless flame. He is the lord of the past and the future. He is the same today and the same tomorrow.”
Moreover, the sacred text informs us, this individual self, “that person who is awake in those that sleep,” is wholly separate from physical man. If man loses his soul, he disintegrates, ceases to exist. But the soul can exist without man.
What then, is the purpose of incarnation? Why does the soul, being of its own nature free, deathless and transcendent, imprison itself within human flesh, which is conditioned; and which suffers and dies?
Tantrik Method Of Knowing Past Lives
The Tantrik answer to this question is that souls enter earthly embodiment and undertake physical experience in order to achieve a divine purpose. The immediate and motivating cause of return to earth is desire, born of the past life.
But the soul’s fleshly counterpart is primarily an instrument of service to a higher being. Only by becoming one with this Golden Person in the heart can the individualized self-come to know all that the soul’s memory holds from the past.
According to the Indian view, in each incarnation the soul assumes a different physical consciousness, a different mind and body.
The reason for this succession of mortal identities is that various types of personality and form are necessary for the soul to accomplish its mission, which is to extend God’s plan of creative development to its ultimate fulfillment.
At the same time, none of these individual entities is permanently lost. For each has its archetype in the akashic records, which are eternal.
Also, firmly rooted in the heart of each of us is the memory of the loves, griefs, friendships and enmities of our former lives. It is for this reason that the haunting fragment of a song, a certain facade or doorway in the evening light, the face of a stranger upon first meeting sometimes unaccountably stir within us joyous or uneasy feelings.
Yet, is nothing more than these uncertain intimations of our long past available to us? Must we satisfy ourselves with merely fleeting, poignant impressions of those former beings for whose actions in some lost and forgotten day and place we must today suffer or exalt?
The Tantrik answer is yes and no. Yogis who have achieved that high state of consciousness known as enlightenment have said they could, at will, recall in totality all the incarnations that had gone before.
Gautama Buddha told his disciples in detail of five hundred and fifty former lives.
And in the celebrated Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna:
“Both you and I have passed through many births. You know them not; I know them all.”
Thus, to those great sages who have attained final union with their souls, that immortal being’s storehouse of memory is thrown open to them.
But for most of us, aside from rare cases which must be regarded as abnormal, previous existences are like lost dreams. At best we can only hope to recover brief scenes or fragmentary idyls that often haunt us like a spirit.
Those who have mastered the secrets of deepest Tantrik sadhana assure us that such waking amnesia is a blessing in disguise. Only because we are free of those places, people and things of the past, which held us in bondage, can we create anew our countless individual worlds that hang like two billion dew drops in the Web of Brahma.
Of course, the residue of experience incurred in past lives remains. Unconsciously we draw upon it in myriad ways. It manifests itself as talent or innate abilities; it secretly determines many of our tastes and traits of char acter, erroneouly attributed to heredity or environment.
Knowing, therefore, that the sadhaka will surely in this life eat of the fruit – good and bad – of past existences, Tantrik gurus do not ordinarily teach him to resurrect, so to speak, the long succession of individual entities which, in sum, make him what he is today.
“The soul is nourished by its entire history,” said Pundit Chatterjee. But we need examine particular de-tails only when a problem has persisted from life to life.
“You should not dip into your past as into the grave. There you will find only bones and a shroud.
“Instead, let the sadhaka try to recover only those personalities and events which registered most strongly in the soul’s memory because they translated the will of God into thought and deed. They are preserved in the anahata center, in the depth of the human heart.
“By depersonalizing his present body through a process of mantra and meditation, the yogi will surely see past embodiments emerge from the mirror-sphere of existence.”
Sit erect upon a chair in front of a mirror large enough to reflect your head and shoulders. A lighted candle should be placed beside the mirror in such a way that it illuminates the glass, but is not reflected in it. There should be no other light in the room.
After a moment of complete relaxation, in which you try to withdraw consciousness into yourself, begin to breathe gently and rhythmically to the 7:1:7:1 count employed in previous disciplines.
Perform twelve complete cycles of this pranayama. Then remain a moment or two in nishta – that is, breathing very softly through both nostrils, never filling the lungs more than one eighth full.
Now form the “mudra of integration” with the right hand, by closing the last two fingers and folding the thumb down across them, leaving the middle and index ringers outstretched.
Place the hand, held in this mudra, palm-down over the heart, the two outstretched fingers pointing toward the left side of the body.
As the heart-beat is felt beneath this hand, mentally repeat the seed syllables OM and HUM with each throb. That is to say, OM would be joined to the systolic pulsation, and HUM to the diastolic. However, it is not necessary to be too exacting. Simply join OM to one beat and HUM to the next.
These syllables are said to open the heart, permitting the sadhaka to enter it. Repeat them twenty-one times. Then close your eyes.
Form the left hand into the same mudra as that of the right. With it, cover the right hand. Then slowly with-draw the right hand, leaving the left in its place over the heart. The extended two fingers of the left hand will, of course, be pointing in the opposite direction, toward the right side of the body.
With eyes still closed, imagine your consciousness penetrating the interior of the heart. It is visualized as an arched cavern, filled at first with billowing clouds of red mist. Gradually these part and a radiant figure appears, surrounded by an aura of golden light.
Mentally, you seek to commune with this luminous being (which is your deepest self). To it you fervently address your petition for a deeper understanding, a momentary glimpse into the timeless mystery of being and becoming.
As you thus meditate in profound silence and rapture, the Golden Person dissolves once more into the red mist. But now the cavern vibrates to a chiming note of pure mantric sound, which gradually merges into silence.
The left-hand mudra is now replaced with the right one once more, reversing the procedure previously followed.
This done, open your eyes. Gaze earnestly, but with detachment, at your reflection in the mirror. This should be done without blinking or moving the eyes.
Presently, as you stare steadily into the mirror, you will see your image dissolve or disappear suddenly. You will be looking at an empty glass.
Do not start to reason about this, nor allow your gaze to waver. If you persevere, another face (sometimes a succession of faces) will supersede the familiar visage you are accustomed to seeing when you look into a mirror.
The new face will be the likeness of one of your past lives upon earth. Study it carefully. Leave your mind open to the intuitive awareness of its message and connection with your present embodiment.
When the eyes begin to fill with tears, terminate the discipline by simply intoning the syllable OM, drawing it out until the final vibration is inaudible.
In practicing this discipline, the sadhaka is urged to bear in mind that its purpose is not to satisfy idle curi-osity. Rather, it is used for healing of the mind and body by a moment’s revelation, which overcomes temporality and lays bare to him the eternal present.
That moment vanishes, but its all-illuminating power endures.