To most persons not already Theosophists, no doctrine appears
more singular than that of Reincarnation, i.e., that each
man is repeatedly born into earth-life; for the usual belief
is that we are here but once, and once for all determine
our future. And yet it is abundantly clear that one life,
even if prolonged, is no more adequate to gain knowledge,
acquire experience, solidify principle, and form character,
than would one day in infancy be adequate to fit for the
duties of mature manhood. Any man can make this even clearer
by estimating, on the one hand, the probable future which
Nature contemplates for humanity, and, on the other, his
present preparation for it.
That future includes evidently two things — an elevation
of the individual to god-like excellence, and his gradual
apprehension of the Universe of Truth. His present preparation,
therefore, consists of a very imperfect knowledge of a very
small department of one form of existence, and that mainly
gained through the partial use of misleading senses; of a
suspicion, rather than a belief, that the sphere of super-sensuous
truth may exceed the sensuous as the great universe does
this earth; of a partially-developed set of moral and spiritual
faculties, none acute and none unhampered, but all dwarfed
by non-use, poisoned by prejudice, and perverted by ignorance;
the whole nature, moreover, being limited in its interests
and affected in its endeavour by the ever-present needs of
a physical body which, much more than the soul, is felt to
be the real “I". [Page 17] Is such
a being, narrow, biassed, carnal, sickly, fitted to enter at death on a limitless career of spiritual acquisition?
Now, there are only three ways in which this obvious unfitness may be overcome — a transforming power in death, a post mortem and wholly spiritual discipline, a series of re-incarnations. There is evidently nothing in the mere separation of soul from body to confer wisdom, ennoble character, or cancel dispositions acquired through fleshliness. If any such power resided in death, all souls, upon being disembodied, would be precisely alike — a palpable absurdity. Nor could a post-mortem discipline meet the requirement, and this for nine reasons: (a) the soul’s knowledge of human life would always remain insignificant; (b) of the various faculties only to be developed during incarnation, some would still be dormant at death, and therefore never evolve; (c) the unsatisfying nature of material life would not have been fully demonstrated; (d) there would have been no deliberate conquest of the flesh by the spirit; (e) the meaning of Universal Brotherhood would have been imperfectly seen; (f) desire for a career on earth under different conditions would persistently check disciplinary progress; (g) exact justice could hardly be secured; (h) the discipline itself would be insufficiently varied and copious; (i) there would be no advance in the successive races on earth.
There remains, then, the last alternative, a series of re-incarnations — in other words, that the enduring principle of man, endowed during each interval between two earth-lives with the results achieved in the former of them, shall return for further experience and effort. If the nine need unmet by a merely spiritual discipline after death are met by re-incarnation, there is a surely strong presumption of its actuality.
Now, (a) Only through reincarnation can knowledge of human life be made exhaustive. A perfected man must have experienced every type of earthly relation and duty, every phase of desire, affection, and passion, every form of temptation, and every variety of conflict. No one life can possibly furnish the material for more than a minute section of such experience.
(b) Reincarnations give occasion for the development of all those faculties which can only be developed during incarnation. Apart from any questions raised by Occult doctrine, we can readily see that some of the richest soul-acquirements come only through contact with human relations and through suffering from ills. Of these, sympathy, toleration, patience, energy, fortitude, foresight, gratitude, pity, beneficence, and altruism are examples.
(c) Only through re-incarnations is the unsatisfying nature of material life fully demonstrated. One incarnation proves merely the futility of its own [Page 18] conditions to secure happiness. To force home the truth that all are equally so, all must be tried. In time the soul sees that a spiritual being cannot be nourished on inferior food, and that any joy short of union with the Divine must be illusionary.
(d) The subordination of the Lower to the Higher nature is made possible by many earth lives. Not a few are needed to convince that the body is but a case, and not a constituent, of the real Ego; others, that it and its passions must be controlled by that Ego. Until the spirit has full sway over the flesh, the man is unfit for a purely spiritual existence. We have known no one to achieve such a victory during this life, and are therefore sure that other lives need to supplement it.
(e) The meaning of Universal Brotherhood becomes apparent only as the veil of self and selfish interest thins, and this it does only through that slow emancipation from conventional beliefs, personal errors, and contracted views which a series of reincarnations effects. A deep sense of human solidarity presupposes a fusion of the one on the whole — a process extending over many lives.
(f) Desire for other forms of earthly experience can only be extinguished by undergoing them. It is obvious that any one of us, if not translated to the unseen world, would feel regret that he had not tasted existence in some other situation or surroundings. He would wish to have known what it was to possess rank or wealth or beauty, or to live in a different race or climate, or to see more of the world and society. No spiritual ascent could progress while earthly longings were dragging back the soul, and so it frees itself from them by successively securing and dropping them. When the round of such knowledge has been traversed, regret for ignorance has died out.
(g) Reincarnations give scope for exact justice to every man. True awards must be given largely on the plane whereon they have been incurred, else their nature is changed, their effects are impaired, and their collateral bearings lost. Physical outrage has to be checked by the infliction physical pain, and not merely by the arousing of internal regret. Honest lives find appropriate consequence in visible honour. But one career is too short for the precise balancing of accounts, and many are needed that every good or evil done is each may be requited on the earth where it took place.
(h) Reincarnations secure variety and copiousness to the discipline we all require. Very much of this discipline comes through the senses, through the conditions of physical life, and through psycho-physiological processes—all of which would be absent from a post-mortem state. Considered as [Page 19] training or as penal infliction for wrong done, a repeated return to earth is needful for fulness of discipline.
(i) Reincarnations ensure a continuous advance in the successive races of men. If each new-born child was a new soul-creation, there would be, except through heredity, no general human advance. But if such child is the flower of many incarnations, he expresses an achieved past as well as a possible future. The tide of life thus rises to greater heights, each wave mounting higher upon the shore. The grand evolution of richer types exacts profusion of earth-existences for its success.
These points illustrate the universal maxim that “Nature does nothing by leaps". She does not, in this case, introduce into a region of spirit and spiritual life a being who has known little else than matter and material life, with small comprehension even of that. To do so would be analogous to transferring suddenly a ploughboy into a company of metaphysicians. The pursuit of any topic implies some preliminary acquaintance with its nature, aims, and mental requirements; and the more elevated the topic the more copious the preparation for it. It is inevitable that a being who has before him an eternity of progress through zones of knowledge and spiritual experience ever nearing the central Sun, should be fitted for it through long acquisition of the faculties which alone can deal with it. Their delicacy, their vigour, their penetrativeness, their unlikeness to those called for on the material plane, show the contrast of the earth-life to the spirit-life. And they show, too, the inconceivability of a sudden transition from one to the other, of a policy unknown in any other department of Nature's workings, of a break in the law of uplifting through Evolution. A man, before he can become a “god", must first become a perfect man; and he can become a perfect man neither in seventy years of life on earth, nor in any number of years of life from which human conditions are absent.
The production of a pure, rich, ethereal nature through a long course of spiritualizing influence during material surroundings is illustrated in agriculture by the cotton plant. When the time arrives that it can bear, the various vitalities of sun and air and ground and stalk culminate in a bud which bursts apart and liberates the ball within. That white, fleecy, delicate mass is the outcome of years of adhesion to the soil. But the sunlight and the rain from heaven have transformed heavy particles into the light fabric of the boll. And so man, long rooted in the clay, is bathed with influences from above, which, as they gradually pervade and elevate him, transmute every grosser element to its spiritual equivalent, purge and [Page 20] purify and ennoble him, and when the evolutionary process is complete, remove the last envelope from the perfected soul, and leave It free to pass for ever from its union with the material.
It is abundantly true that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God". Re-birth and re-life must go on till their purposes are accomplished. If, indeed, we were mere victims of an evolutionary law, helpless atoms on whom the machinery of Nature pitilessly played, the prospect of a succession of incarnations, no one of which gave satisfaction, might drive to mad despair. But Theosophy thrusts on us no such cheerless exposition. It shows that re-incarnations are the law for man because they are the condition of his progress, which is also a law, but tells him that he may mould them and better them and lessen them. He cannot rid himself of the machinery, but neither should he wish to. Endowed with the power to guide it for the best, prompted with the motive to use that power, he may harmonize both his aspirations and his efforts with the system that expresses the infinite wisdom of the Supreme, and through the journey from the temporal to the eternal tread the way with steady feet, braced with the consciousness that he is one of an innumerable multitude, and with the certainty that he and they alike, if they so will it, may attain finally to that sphere where birth and death are but memories of the past.
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