All over the world, people believe – or used to believe – in the transmigration of souls.
Over the centuries, the relationship between the body and the soul (spirit, psyche, consciousness, Ātman, etc.) has been described in various ways. Some say that only the soul exists, while the body is a kind of illusion. Others say that only the body exists, while the soul is a kind of illusion. Some maintain that the soul, although it exists, is associated with the body and dies with it. Others, taking a similar position, believe that after death, the soul can be reborn with the body (some Jews pay vast amounts for a place in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, in the area where the Messiah is meant to appear). Some say that one soul can exist in many bodies; others that many souls can reside in one body.
Statistically speaking, the most popular belief on the planet – held by the main currents of Christianity and Islam – holds that the single soul inhabiting the individual body is immortal and passes to another world after the death of the body. The second most popular belief is that after death, the soul is incarnated in another body (in this world or another), and this continues until a goal is achieved. This concept is most commonly associated with Eastern religions, but its existence has also been documented both in the West and all around the world. In Western culture, this idea has various different names. The most commonly used concept of ‘reincarnation’ is a neologism that originated in the 19th century in French spiritual circles. The Greeks spoke of ‘metempsychosis’ and ‘ontogenesis’. Another term is ‘transmigration of souls’.
In ancient times, the belief in the existence of reincarnation was predominantly found in Indian religions. From India, it began to spread east, to Mongolia, Japan and Indonesia – wherever travelling Buddhist monks arrived.
The Vedas, the oldest religious texts of Hinduism, did not contain this concept, but highlighted the idea that after death, the soul can die again in the afterlife; participation in rituals was supposed to help one avoid this risk. It is probable that reincarnation arose in ascetic circles, which were not associated with Brahminism. Over time, however, the Brahmin priests incorporated reincarnation into their system.
In Indian religions, the soul is not incarnated exclusively in human bodies – “But people of foul behaviour can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig, or an outcaste woman” (Chandogya Upanishad). Depending on karma, an invisible moral principle, according to which everything is the result of previous actions, the self is incarnated in a new body. The soul is a subtle body that has no senses, so there is generally no memory of previous incarnations, because there is no mind (which is treated as one of the senses). However, at a high stage of spiritual development, meditation techniques can be practised that allow you to recall facts from previous lives. It is possible (and desirable) that, as a result of spiritual evolution, the soul will cease to be reborn and will achieve union with divinity. Some gods also have various incarnations (in the present era, Vishnu is incarnated in the form of a boar).
The Indian belief in the transmigration of souls has its psychological and socio-political consequences: every fate, even the worst, is justified by previous deeds. All rebellion (whether mental or political) is futile, and every life, even those of the untouchables, is deserved and just. Gandhi was opposed to setting up hospitals, because they would delay the payment of karmic debt.
In search of the Dalai Lama
Before becoming the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama perfected himself in numerous previous incarnations (there is a rich Buddhist literature describing his former lives). While in heaven, he chose his country and mother; right after birth as a prince, Siddhārtha is supposed to have said: “This is the last birth.” In his teaching, he rejected the belief from the Upanishad in the existence of an unchanging self, an indestructible unit of consciousness; he saw in this belief the source of all suffering. It is not the immutable soul that is incarnated in another body, but a new configuration of different layers of reality. There is no soul reborn into the body, because in fact there is neither soul nor body; there is only an infinite and impersonal series of causes and effects from which one should escape or, to use Buddhist terminology, awaken and attain nirvana. You may ask: what about memory and self-awareness? This is an illusion – there is no one who thinks, there are only thoughts and mental states. Unawakened existence is always reborn in some form.
One of the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism lies in the fact that a good Buddhist is not always incarnated in a better form, because they may not always wish to be. The later teachings developed the ideal of a holy Bodhisattva – a compassionate being who remains in the turnstile of life and death and continues to be reborn until all beings cease to suffer. It is worth mentioning here the case of an enlightened Japanese monk who wanted to be reborn in his new life as an ordinary donkey who simply helped people in the village.
Tibetan Buddhism has detailed methods for discovering incarnations of people who were relevant to the political and spiritual life of the country. Some lamas write letters, to be opened only after their death, explaining exactly where they will be reborn and under what name. However, if this information is not provided, their disciples must find the lama themselves. The search for such an incarnation has been demonstrated in the case of the current 14th Dalai Lama (who is the incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, who in turn was the incarnation of the 12th Dalai Lama, and so on).
Before his death in 1933, the 13th Dalai Lama said only that he would be reborn in the east. The monk responsible for finding the child went to a lake famous for evoking visions. On the water’s surface, he is said to have seen the syllables ‘a’, ‘ka’ and ‘ma’; a picture of a monastery with a turquoise roof, and a brown and white dog also appeared to him. An expedition was sent to the east of the country. A boy was found in the village of Taktse in the province of Amdo (‘a’), near the important monastery of Kumbum (‘ka’), in which the 13th Dalai Lama had stayed when he was alive (passing once near the future birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama, he apparently said that it was “a beautiful place”). The monastery in Taktse, with a turquoise roof and a brown and white dog running around outside, was called Karma (‘ka’ + ‘ma’) Shartsong. All of these signs were considered significant. However, the decisive test came when the boy was asked to identify the actual objects of the deceased Dalai Lama when they were mixed with duplicates. The boy passed this test; he also recognized the monks who were questioning him, whom he knew from his previous incarnation, even though they were dressed as merchants.
The soul is God
The concept of the transmigration of souls has been known in Europe since ancient times. Greek Orphists assumed that man, consisting of the Titan element (body) and the divine Dionysus element (soul), should cleanse himself of the former and free himself from the turnstile of successive incarnations. According to Orphism, the soul hovers in the air after death and is sucked into the new body when it begins to breathe. Salvation can be found through asceticism and participation in sacred orgies; turning away from the world and refraining from eating meat are also considered helpful. Although Hades and the Underworld exist, there is no such thing as eternal punishment in the afterlife: mere existence in this world and successive incarnations are a cosmic punishment. The immortal soul only becomes itself when it frees itself from the body. The body is the death of the soul. Only outside the body does the soul become what it is: God.
According to legend, Pythagoras used the memories of his earlier lives in his teaching. He allegedly recognized the shield with which he had fought during the battle of Troy, when he had a different body. He claimed that the immortal soul enters the body as punishment; after death, it briefly cleanses itself in Hades, but then it must enter a human or animal body. The world is filled with souls: in the right light they are even visible, they shimmer and vibrate. The solution to the problem of life is asceticism, insight, and the kindling of the divine element within oneself. The Pythagoreans accepted that the soul was something completely different from the body, hence the split interests that characterized them: on the one hand they were fascinated by mysticism and mystery, and on the other, natural history, mathematics and geometry. The views of the Orphists and the Pythagoreans played a significant role in Plato’s philosophy, which ensured the endurance of the concept of reincarnation in Western philosophical culture. It is sometimes claimed that the Greeks learned about the transmigration of souls from the Egyptians, but according to researchers, there is no clear evidence that the Egyptians held this belief.
The ancient Romans wrote about the Celts that their belief in a wandering, indestructible soul was absolute. According to Pomponius Mela, the Celts would happily jump into the flames of the funeral pyre to be reborn with the deceased in a different reality. They reportedly borrowed money knowing that the debt would not be paid off in this lifetime.
Something like reincarnation can be found in the beliefs of the distant ancestors of Poles, too. Vyraj is both the name of the Slavic land of souls and the paradise garden to which birds fly for the winter. In the imagination of the Slavs, the soul was identified with the bird. The soul of a dying man goes to Vyraj, then returns – like a bird in the spring – and enters the womb. This explains the origins of the tradition of a stork or a nightjar bringing a baby.
A debt with the demons
In the first centuries of the new era, before the official Christian doctrine had been determined, some sects believed in the transmigration of souls. One obvious example is Christian Gnosticism, which drew from Orphism and Pythagoreanism. The theology of Carpocrates is particularly interesting. Like the Orphists and all other Gnostic movements, Carpocrates viewed existence itself as a cosmic punishment. However, he saw it in an original way: as a kind of debt that had to be paid back to the demons. According to this theory, the problem of human existence is based on being a slave to sin, which is inevitable and expected by the evil deities. The number of incarnations is determined by the amount of sin committed – if the soul does not reach the required limit, it will be reborn. The practical solution is therefore to live in a debauched and immoral way in order to cleanse your soul and eventually free yourself from this ruined world.
Mainstream Christianity rejected the idea of reincarnation at the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553. However, even today there are branches of esoteric Christianity that believe in reincarnation, justifying their belief with various passages from the New Testament (for example, passages from the Gospel of Matthew – 11:14; 17:12 – in which Jesus is called the new Elijah). One of the representatives of this branch of Christianity is the creator of anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner. (The Austrian philosopher also came up with a stunning theory explaining modern materialism: in earlier incarnations, people lived in ancient Egypt as more ephemeral and spiritual beings; after death, they were mummified, which meant that the soul did not immediately break away from the body and was thus more associated with it in essence; this, in turn, led to the soul being much closer to matter in later incarnations.)
The transmigration of souls was also known in Jewish mysticism, appearing in the first Kabbalistic work, the Bahir. It is thought that the Kabbalists might have discovered this concept thanks to the Cathars (and therefore indirectly through Manichaeism, which had contact with the religions of India). Reincarnation, according to the famous book the Zohar, does not apply to all people, but is associated with the duty of procreation. If someone neglects this duty, they are reborn as a punishment, or to gain an opportunity to procreate. The 16th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria created an extraordinary vision of all human history: every human being is an incarnation of a part of Adam’s soul, who will be incarnated until he is cleansed and returns to paradise. Some Jewish theologians attribute the strong interest in Judaism among non-Jews to the theory of transmigration of souls; one may have a Jewish soul that belonged, in an earlier existence (and in a sense still belongs), to the chosen people.
A belief in reincarnation is not limited to the major world religions. The Native American Moki tribe and the Zuni people have totemic clans – Hare clans, Deer clans, Turtle clans, and so on. The ancestors of these clans were thought to be these animals; after death, the souls of tribe members are incarnated in the bodies of the animals of the clans they represent. In Zuni ceremonies, killing turtles is a way of sending the soul to the spirit land.
There was a belief among some Sub-Saharan African tribes that parts of the deceased’s psyche appeared in members of their family or clan. In this case, however, there is no clearly defined doctrine; these groups have not developed (nor shown interest in building) a coherent belief system and do not define clear differences between one soul and another, between one existence and another.
Aboriginal myths talk of Dreamtime, the beginning of history, when their ancestors performed heroic feats. An Aborigine who learns these myths discovers that they are stories about his or her own previous life (this belief has much in common with the Platonic concept of ‘anamnesis’: getting to know God, or one’s own soul, is a matter of recollection).
The puzzling element in the idea of reincarnation, as in most religious ideas, is the very fact of its existence. Why did it appear? As our review reveals, most traditions that feature the concept of the transmigration of souls see existence as a kind of suffering, and successive incarnations as further suffering. It is hard to discern in such views any element of ‘wishful thinking’ – so often the accusation directed at those who believe in an immortal soul that goes to a better world.
Gershom Scholem said that the sources and popularity of reincarnation should be seen in the injustices of the world that cannot be explained in any other way, such as the ill-treatment or illness of children, diseases that go hand in hand with moral merit, the success of fools, and so on. However, he was wrong to assume that every concept of reincarnation includes the element of karma, or a just return for deeds. Even in the case of the Kabbalists Scholem described, it is clear that the transmigration of souls can occur in different ways. It also seems that reincarnation has never been just a theoretical concept justifying the moral disorder of the world, but it has much to do with the experience of memories, which may even be where it stems from; the truth or falsehood of these memories is of course another matter.
To finish, there’s probably nothing better than to quote the accurate observation of Voltaire: “It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.”
Although mainstream Western science (treating consciousness as derived from and dependent on the body) rejects reincarnation, some academic researchers believe they have found evidence of its existence. Starting in the 1960s, Ian Stevenson, an American professor of psychiatry, collected cases of children’s memories, usually from two- and three-year-olds. According to his theory, memories gradually fade in later years; the occurrence of coherent and convincing content at this age is also the most difficult to comprehend. The respondents usually came from countries with a low standard of living, and their lives had often been restricted to a single village: they had no telephones, television, or contact with other communities. Many cases involved ‘shameful’ incarnations for which it would be hard to gain fame or prestige (some children claimed that they had been criminals or murderers in earlier incarnations). Other perplexing incarnations related to religious conflicts: for example, one of the surveyed boys born to an Indian family claimed to be the son of a Muslim fakir and said that he concealed his praying from his parents. Stevenson discovered a bodily convergence between the deceased and the children who considered themselves their next incarnations: the children were said to have had birthmarks in places that were ‘significant’ for the previous incarnation, such as the spot where a fatal wound had been inflicted in a car accident.
Translated by Kate Webster