The True Believers
Updated June 1, 2003
“Care for some soup?”
“No thanks. I’m not that crazy about pea soup.”
“But this is good stuff! It’s Mama Tellurini’s Favorite and Decidedly Luscious Pea Soup!”
“I think I’ll pass this time.”
“You realize, of course, that everyone in town is eating this pea soup now. It’s the latest thing!”
“Really? Everybody in town?”
“Hmmmm. No. Not now. Maybe I’ll try it some other time.”
“Did you know that Mama Tellurini’s Favorite and Luscious Pea Soup is Bruce Willis'’ and Demi Moore’s favorite soup?"
“Really? In that case, got an extra spoon?”
One method of judging the veracity of a theory or point of view is to consider the popularity of that point of view. This takes on an added dimension when famous personalities or thinkers support an idea and, in effect, give the proposed concept greater credibility. It’s as if we’re hesitant to strike out on our own and much prefer that others do the trailblazing.
This is not an unreasonable position. Virtually no one has the time to try everything or to consider every point of view. Consequently, we often save time by eliminating numerous options by the simple expedience of not trying them, and try only those options of which we have a reasonable expectation of success. By relying on the opinions of others, we can, thus, more easily separate the wheat from the chaff.
Applying this method to the subject of reincarnation we might first take a poll of our fellow incarnates (past and present). Hopefully, we can either establish that the subject of reincarnation is viable and at least worthy of our consideration, or we can write if off as a product of the lunatic, forty‑percent fringe of society.
In 1969, 18% of the population of Great Britain believed in reincarnation. By 1980, this percentage of reincarnation true believers had increased to 30%.
By way of contrast, we can note that a Gallup Poll taken in 1968 among members of the British populace gave the following responses: 77% believed in God (11% did not; 12% had no opinion), 38% believed in life after death (35% no, 27% no opinion), and 23% believed in hell (58% no, 19% no opinion). Apparently, for the British, hell was slightly more popular than reincarnation (at least in the late sixties). In the same Gallup Poll, conducted in the United States, the results were: 98% believed in God (2% did not), 73% believed in life after death (19% no, 8% no opinion), and 65% believed in hell (29% no, 6% no opinion).
From 1982 until 1986, the percentage of the population of the United States believing in reincarnation had increased from 24% to 37%. Of course, popularity can be a lousy indicator of truth. An even larger percentage of the American people believed there was no way the New York Jets could win Super Bowl III. (There are even a few people who still don’t believe it.)
All kidding aside, it is difficult to dismiss out‑of‑hand the opinions of a third of the population, particularly when the opinions are shared by people for whom we have a great deal of respect. If such a view is applied to reincarnation, we find an impressive list of famous thinkers who believed and advocated the concept of reincarnation as a basic truth. We have already mentioned Voltaire, who appears to have accepted reincarnation as the more probable alternative to only living one life on earth. Other noteworthy members of the reincarnation fan club include:
Aristotle... Plato... Socrates... Hume... Goethe... Schopenhauer... Emanuel Kant... Nietsche... Shakespeare... Thoreau... Walt Whitman... Faulkner... Whittier... Lowell... Mark Twain... Longfellow... Jack London... Edgar Allen Poe... Robert Burns... Charles Dickens... Oliver Wendell Holmes... Paracelsus... John Lindberg... Thomas Edison... George Patton... Frederick the Great... Henry Ford... Benjamin Franklin... Napoleon Bonaparte... Saint Augustine(?)... Saint Justin... Saint Gregory... Saint Synesius... Saint Origen... and miscellaneous prime ministers, writers, actors, etc, etc.
These illustrious figures do lend credibility to a belief in reincarnation. And while many of them thought that the earth was flat, it would be a mistake to dismiss the whole lot as a bunch of loonies. The fact of the matter is that many “great thinkers” did believe in reincarnation and clearly stated as much in their writings.
For example, Benjamin Franklin wrote that when he saw nothing annihilated, not so much as even a drop of water, he could not believe in the annihilation of souls, or that God would continually discard millions of minds and go to the continual trouble of making new ones. In Ben’s view, if he existed in the world then, he would continue to exist in one form or another. Furthermore, despite the inconveniences of life, he would not object to a new edition of himself, hoping, of course, that the errata of his last edition would be corrected.
In his famous epitaph, written when he was only twenty-two years old, Dr. Franklin states his view, perhaps more succinctly:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer,
Like the Cover of an Old Book,
Its Contents Torn Out
And stripped of its Lettering and Gilding,
Food for Worms,
But the Work shall not be Lost,
For it Will as He Believed
Appear Once More
In a New and more Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.
Can we dismiss Benjamin Franklin’s view because of the time in which he lived and the fact that he did not have access to our modern technology? It is possible of course, but very risky. It is not inconceivable that Ben might have known things that our society has long forgotten. It would be a mistake to dismiss his opinion, simply because of his “antiquity.”
The Ancients as Observers
Contrary to the modern view, our ancestors seem to have taken the concept of reincarnation as the natural state of affairs. Unfortunately for them, there is a tendency for people today to believe that ancient peoples were considerably less sophisticated than their progeny. This may stem from the fact that most sons believe their fathers to be incredibly naive and totally unaware of “what’s hot and what’s not.” If sons are in fact, more knowledgeable than their fathers and, if we assume that this has always been the case, then following this line of reasoning back through the ages generates the inescapable conclusion that our ancient ancestors must have been incredibly stupid! Not just slightly dumb, but ignorant in the extreme! One can easily visualize them walking around, stumbling over acorns, running into trees, and never, under any circumstances, having enough sense to get in out of the rain. (Except perhaps in the case of Noah... who had help.)
An alternative but potentially radical position is to assume that the ancients were not blithering idiots, but were in fact quite intelligent; this despite the “disadvantage” of their not understanding modern technology. It is after all possible for someone to make intelligent judgments about observations, even if these observations do not derive their data from sophisticated technology.
On this basis then, we can consider the possibility that all thoughts from antiquity are not flawed, but may in fact have some strong evidence in support of them. And because reincarnation appears to have been a viable theory from the earliest of times, it is just possible that it does indeed have merit.
There are indications, based on ancient legends and myths, folkloric tradition, tribal memory, and certain archaeological discoveries, that suggest a belief in reincarnation may predate the establishment of the world’s major religions. Incorporated in all such concepts, whether they be Eastern or Western, is a belief that some essence of individual life exists after death, that this same essence may leave the physical body which has perished, and that it may subsequently return to the known world in a similar or different guise.
Such beliefs may even have been included in Neanderthal societies, where artifacts dating back over 100,000 years provide the earliest known evidence for reincarnation. This evidence is circumstantial, but derives from the discovery of remains of the deceased being found in forced fetal positions and placed in an east‑west line. These discoveries suggest an understanding by the Neanderthal undertakers of an expected future birth, and also of an apparent recognition of the sun’s daily birth in the east. Or death in the west.
One bone of contention was avoided in early Shamanic belief (dating from 25,000 to 15,000 BC) by the assumption that souls lived within the deceased’s bones, and that it was from these bones that new creatures were reborn. The Aztecs carried this concept further with the myth of their great god, Quetzalcoatal, whose blood would periodically combine with the ground‑up bones of the dead to create a new human race. It’s heartening to know that the Aztecs, centuries ago, were already heavily into recycling waste products.
Several ancient civilizations throughout the world include in their cultures and traditions a wide variety of expectations concerning reincarnation. The Chinese Tao suggests reincarnation by its relentless cycles of going and returning, while the four-armed Hindu God of creation and destruction, Shiva, has long been a symbol of death and rebirth.
Many of the ancient beliefs involve the returning to Earth of gods in the form of men, who then assist mankind in some way. Egyptian pharaohs are perhaps the more obvious example, but even modern day Tibetans have carried on the custom in their selection of their Dalai Lama. Diverse figures from Alexander the Great to King Arthur of Britain to the Hindu’s Krishna are believed by some to be the reincarnation of a god.
Hinduism is pre‑eminent among organized religions in its belief in reincarnation. Although the religion dates back to the fourth millennium BCE, reincarnation itself may have first originated in India as early as the 6th century BCE. (It may be comforting to know that the ancient Hindus took the trouble to think about the problem for two and one half millennia before finally accepting the idea. Whether or not the necessity for this lengthy consideration bodes well for an acceptance of the concept by people today is another story.)
It is worth mentioning that Hinduism may not have been the original source. Older traditions concerning souls and the cycle of existence may have been adapted by the early Hindus, or they may have been handed down to the Brahmins by older races, notably the Egyptians or the Sumerians of the Tigris/Euphrates valley.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, from the city of Eleusis (near Athens, Greece), which date back as far as the 15th century BCE, appear to have included reincarnation as a central theme. It has been suggested by Robert Monroe, a pre‑eminent researcher in the subject, that the extremely secretive rites of the Eleusinians involved Out‑of‑Body Experiences (see chapter 9), which served as a means of introducing a hint of the afterlife to their priestly neophytes.
Greek history continues to recall aspects of reincarnation in the Orphic Mysteries (7th century BCE). In the 5th century BCE Pythagoras (of Pythagorean Theorem fame) is said to have told a man who was beating a puppy, not to hit him as it was the soul of a friend of his, which he had recognized when the dog/friend cried out.
Well... Let’s face it. Mathematicians can be a bit strange. Nonetheless...
Plato’s ideas on reincarnation (as exemplified in the Phaedrus) have been interpreted by Ducasse, such that the really honest ones come back as philosophers, artists, musicians or lovers; the slightly less honest ones return as righteous kings, warriors, or lords, the marginally honest ones as merchants, economists, or politicians; and the less-than-honest as physicians or gymnasts! The thoroughly bad ones return as tyrants. Frankly, I think Plato gave entirely too much credit to the economists and politicians.
The 5th century BCE Greek historian, Herodotus, attributed the Grecian belief in reincarnation to Egypt. The Egyptians in turn pointed to the east where they believed the god Osiris had brought the knowledge from India to Egypt. As we pointed out above, the Hindus suspected the Egyptians of being the original source.
Gautama Buddha, believed that mankind was confined to a cycle of earthly existences, on what he called the treadmill of rebirth. Having allegedly lived over 500 previous lives, over a period of some 25,000 years (or about one life every 50 years or so), it is perhaps not surprising that Buddha seemed to regard reincarnation as a treadmill. This concept, however, is echoed in the pervasive Hindu belief that all souls are held to a “Wheel of Life,” which through its revolutions brings life and death over and over again.
Reincarnation crops up again in the myths and legends of European Druids, Celts and Gauls. These people were so certain of reincarnation as a fact of life (and death), that they often rejoiced at a person’s demise (and his return to heaven?), and mourned the birth of a child as a return of some poor soul to the trials and tribulations of earthly existence. The Druids even accepted the idea of borrowed money being repaid in a subsequent reincarnation. It is left to the reader’s imagination (or some creative legal minds) as to the form and wording of a modern loan agreement, that would provide for such contingencies. At the same time, I’m confident that your local savings and loan would probably be eager to loan money on some such basis. But then, again, savings and loan executives are not necessarily that smart. Remember Bush's Silverado?
Lest we subscribe too much of a belief in reincarnation to the ancients, it must be stated that many modern day religions continue to believe in the concept. Besides the obvious example of Hinduism and Buddhism, other lesser known religions accept reincarnation as an article of faith.
For example, in 1933 one of the best examples of modern day beliefs in reincarnation occurred when Thupten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, died at his summer palace in Lhasa, Tibet. His death set in motion a long, sacred search for the child whom Tibetans believed would be born soon afterward as his reincarnate successor, the latest in a line that had continued uninterrupted since 1391.
Using beneficial omens and visions, the sacred search reached the small village of Taktser, where a young boy, not quite two years old, was tentatively identified in 1936 as the reincarnated leader. The boy was subtly put through detailed and exhaustive testing. In one instance, for example, the boy readily went to and sat on the lap of the chief Lama of the search team, who had been disguised as a servant. The boy also seemed to recognize a rosary hanging around the Lama’s neck—the rosary had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1939, the child was finally accepted as the Tibetan leader and transported in royal fashion to Lhasa (after bribing the local Chinese officials). On the 14th day of the first month of the year of the iron dragon (1940), the child was placed on the Lion Throne.
Clearly many of the modern day religions not only accept reincarnation, but go to great lengths to shape their lives from its basic assumptions. It has been estimated that 80% of the world’s religions believe in reincarnation and the responsibility of each individual for his own life. On the other hand, modern day, orthodox Christian, Jewish and Islamic beliefs continue to reject reincarnation as a viable theory. While there is always room for disagreement among religions, it is also obvious that some of these august bodies are wrong. With only two mutually incompatible alternatives, it is apparent that only one can be correct.
Admittedly such an argument is like saying that a stopped clock is correct twice a day, but it does seem apparent that one body of opinion is wrong. And if it is the orthodox Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions that have been led astray, perhaps it is these religions upon which the burden of proof should fall.
But is this the case? Have the traditions of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious faiths ever supported the doctrine of reincarnation? Consider the quotations below, taken from the the sacred writings of each of these orthodox religions.
Islam’s Koran, states:
“And Allah hath caused you to spring forth from the Earth like a plant; Hereafter will He turn you back into it again, and will bring you forth anew” ‑ (Sura 71:17‑18)
Judaism’s The Zohar, a Kabalistic classic believed to date from the first century AD, states:
“The souls must re‑enter the absolute, whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this end they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them; and if they have not fulfilled this condition during one life, they must commence another, a third and so forth; until they have acquired the condition which fits them for reunion with God.”
Christianity’s Bible includes:
“Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.” (Revelation 3:12)
Authors, such as Joe Fisher in The Case for Reincarnation, interpret these statements to imply an early belief by each of these religions in reincarnation. Clearly the statements can be interpreted in this way, but are there other interpretations? Of course. There always are. Interpretation of biblical and other passages has always been a case of “rushing in where wise men fear to tread.”
But if we again rely on great thinkers to do our thinking, we will find it worthwhile to consult one of the greatest of the interpreters of Christian teachings, Saint Origen.
Early Christian Church Beliefs
Encyclopedia Britannica considers Origen to be the most prominent of the church fathers with the possible exception of Augustine. Saint Origen was, in fact, accused of having advocated a variety of concepts at variance with established church doctrine, and one in particular being reincarnation. Geddes MacGregor, in his book, Reincarnation in Christianity, wrote that Origen may have been intrigued by the theory, but had some doubts with respect to certain forms of reincarnation. Origen, did at one point, apparently refer to reincarnation as a false doctrine with respect to the transmigration of souls into bodies.
Transmigration, however, is not necessarily the same thing as reincarnation. It can refer to the passing of the soul from one body to another (as in possessing another soul’s body). Or it may involve reincarnating in an animal or plant, after having been incarnated in a human body. The manner in which Origen used the term is not definitive. But in other areas it is clear that Origen’s teachings were full of the pre‑existence of the soul and reincarnation. This would be surprising only if such ideas were contrary to the scriptures of the day.
Unfortunately, much of what we know of Origen is limited to what has come down to us in quotations of his words from his detractors. There is reason to believe, for example, that Origen inclined toward a more Platonic philosophy and did, in fact, agree with the Greek philosopher that the soul was cast into a corruptible body in order to prove itself superior to the failings of the flesh. Furthermore, Saint Origen wrote that the soul was worse off in the body than outside it, and that the importance of the body was only to meet the varying conditions required by the soul. The bodies, were in fact, merely vehicles for the reincarnation of the soul.
But Saint Origen is not alone. Saint Augustine may himself have questioned certain beliefs, when he asked if his infancy succeeded another age of his that had died before it. In the Gnostic gospel, Pistis Sophia quotes Jesus as saying that “souls are poured from one into another of different bodies of the world.”
When did the church and, ultimately, modern day Christianity turn away from reincarnation? Most historians see the crucial turning point in the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church) in 553 CE, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It was one of the council’s 14 anathemas, or denunciations, which stated, that if anyone asserted the fabulous pre‑existence of souls, and asserted the monstrous restoration which followed it, that person would be anathema.
There is considerable doubt among modern theologians as to whether or not the anathemas announced by the council should be considered binding on contemporary Christian denominations. This is due to the fact that the 553 CE council may have been illegal. At the time Pope Vigilius was clearly not in control of the situation and, in fact, was literally imprisoned by Justinian. There were apparently no eastern bishops in attendance at the meeting, and there is even the possibility that the condemnation of reincarnation was not even an official part of the council (an early version of “back room negotiations?”). This latter item is emphasized by the fact that it was not the actual writings of Origen himself that were condemned but those belonging to certain Origenistic sects. This sounds suspiciously like a compromise to condemn reincarnation, but to avoid condemning a venerable saint who had lived 350 years before the council meeting.
What ulterior motive could Justinian and the Second Council have had in denouncing reincarnation? One thing is clear: Most people with a firm belief in reincarnation do not fear death, and because of this, tend to fear little else. The absolutely fearless Celtic warriors are perhaps the best example. Reincarnation believers are also unlikely to be moved by threats of eternal damnation or swayed by the promises of priestly interventions on their behalf. Believers in reincarnation, in fact, tend to be very self‑reliant, intimately aware of their own very individual responsibility in developing their soul, and as a consequence, make lousy subjects for edict‑minded emperors. Hans Holzer in his book, Patterns of Destiny, wrote that the church needed the whip of Judgment Day to keep the faithful in line, and that it was even a matter of survival of the early church not to allow a belief in reincarnation to take hold among her followers.
Joe Fisher, in The Case for Reincarnation, places the charge more squarely against the empire‑building Emperor, Justinian, who in his zealous quest for cannon fodder and loyal troops, followed up his ecclesiastical curses with tenacious persecution. But not all of the condemnation by the church can be ascribed to Justinian I. Over the course of the following millennium, the church’s persecution against the doctrine of reincarnation became ever more extreme, with the mass extinctions of peoples (the Albigensians of southern France, for example) and subsequent church councils (Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1439) affirming that souls go immediately to heaven, purgatory or hell.
During the tenth century, Bulgaria became the center of the Cathars. Following Gnostic traditions, the Cathars held that one should obtain direct knowledge (“cosmic‑consciousness”) of divine principles on one’s own, rather than arbitrarily through churches and priests. The Cathars, who considered themselves to be the only true Christians, carried the struggle well into the 13th century, while mystical groups such as the Alchemists and the Rosicrucians managed to carry the belief into modern times.
Despite the church’s holy war against reincarnation, the Bible remains the most notable Achilles Heel of orthodox church doctrine. Admittedly, the Old Testament contains only peripheral references to reincarnation. But the New Testament alludes to the subject more often and more directly. Again, such evidence depends upon context and interpretation. This was acknowledged by Edgar Cayce, a self‑styled clairvoyant and fundamentalist Christian, who died in 1945. Cayce noted that one could read reincarnation into the Bible, or not, depending on their prior views. Many scholars, however, believe that several Biblical passages only make sense if they are interpreted in the context of repeated Earth lives.
A few such biblical references include:
Y “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (Malachi 4:5)
U “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist; notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. And for all the prophets and the law which was prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elijah, which was for to come.” (Matthew 11:11‑14)
U “But I say unto you, That Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:12‑13)
U “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
U “And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way, he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am? And they answered, John the Baptist: but some say, Elijah; and others, One of the Prophets. And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.” (Mark 8: 27-30)
U “And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:1‑3)
This last biblical quotation deserves some comment. In this regard we might turn to the Reverend L. Weatherhead, Methodist minister of the City Temple, London from 1936 to 1960, who noted that one must not take just Jesus’ answer, but note that the idea of reincarnation was current at the time. Clearly, if man was born blind as punishment for a sin committed, then the sin must have been perpetrated at a time prior to being born into the world, and potentially, in an earlier life. It is noteworthy that while Christ had never taught reincarnation directly, he sometimes referred to it as though it were part of the accepted ideas of His day. More importantly, Jesus never repudiated or denied reincarnation, or taught that it was a false doctrine.
Chapter One: Reincarnation: The Basics
Chapter Three: Karma
2003© Copyright Dan Sewell Ward, All Rights Reserved [Feedback]