By Yogi Ramacharaka.
The doctrine of Metempsychosis or Re-incarnation has its roots deeply imbedded in the soil of all religions—that is, in the Inner Teachings or Esoteric phase of all religious systems. And this is true of the Inner Teachings of the Christian Church as well as of the other systems. The Christian Mysteries comprised this as well as the other fundamental occult doctrines, and the Early Church held such teachings in its Inner Circle.
And, in its essence, the doctrine of Rebirth is the only one that is in full accord with the Christian conception of ultimate justice and “fairness.” As a well known writer has said concerning this subject:
“It relieves us of many and great difficulties. It is impossible for any one who looks around him and sees the sorrow and suffering in the world, and the horrible inequality in the lives of men—not inequality in wealth merely, but inequality in opportunity of progress—to harmonize these facts with the love and justice of God, unless he is willing to accept this theory that this one life is not all, but that it is only a day in the real life of the soul, and that each soul therefore has made its place for itself, and is receiving just such training as is best for its evolution. Surely the only theory which enables a man rationally to believe in Divine justice, without shutting his eyes to obvious facts, is a theory worthy of study.
“Modern theology concerns itself principally with a plan for evading divine justice, which it elects to call ‘Salvation,’ and it makes this plan depend entirely upon what a man believes, or rather upon what he says that he believes. This whole theory of ‘salvation,’ and indeed the theory that there is anything to be ‘saved’ from, seems to be based upon a misunderstanding of a few texts of scripture. We do not believe in this idea of a so-called divine wrath; we think that to attribute to God our own vices of anger and cruelty is a terrible blasphemy. We hold to the theory of steady evolution and final attainment for all; and we think that the man’s progress depends not upon what he believes, but upon what he does. And there is surely very much in the bible to support this idea. Do you remember St. Paul’s remark, ‘Be not deceived, God is not mocked; whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’? And again, Christ said that ‘They that have done good shall go unto the resurrection of life’—not they that have believed some particular doctrine. And when He describes the day of judgment, you will notice that no question is raised as to what anybody has believed, but only as to the works which he has done.”
In this connection, we think that it is advisable to quote from the address of a well known English churchman upon this important subject. The gentleman in question is The Ven. Archdeacon Colley, Rector of Stockton, Warwickshire, England, who said:
“In the realm of the occult and transcendental, moved to its exploration from the Sadducean bias of my early days, I have for the best part of half a century had experiences rarely equaled by any, and I am sure, surpassed by none; yet have they led me up till now, I admit, to no very definite conclusions. With suspension of judgment, therefore, not being given to dogmatize on anything, and with open mind I trust, in equipoise of thought desiring to hold an even balance of opinion ‘twixt this and that, I am studious still of being receptive of light from every source—rejecting nothing that in the least degree makes for righteousness, hence my taking the chair here tonight, hoping to learn what may help to resolve a few of the many perplexities of life, to wit: Why some live to the ripe old age of my dear father while others live but for a moment, to be born, gasp and die. Why some are born rich and others poor; some having wealth only to corrupt, defile, deprave others therewith, while meritorious poverty struggles and toils for human betterment all unaided. Some gifted with mentality; others pitiably lacking capacity. Some royal-souled from the first naturally, others with brutal, criminal propensities from beginning to end.
“The sins of the fathers visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation may in heredity account for much, but I want to see through the mystery of a good father at times having a bad son, as also of one showing genius and splendid faculties—the offspring of parentage the reverse of anything suggesting qualities contributive thereto. Then as a clergyman, I have in my reading noted texts of Holy Scripture, and come across passages in the writings of the Fathers of the Early Church which seem to be root-thoughts, or survivals of the old classic idea of re-incarnation.
“The prophet Jeremiah (1:5) writes, ‘The word of the Lord came unto me saying, before I formed thee, I knew thee, and before thou wast born I sanctified thee and ordained thee a prophet.’
“Does this mean that the Eternal-Uncreate chose, from foreknowledge of what Jeremiah would be, the created Ego of His immaterialized servant in heaven ere he clothed his soul with the mortal integument of flesh in human birth—schooling him above for the part he had to play here below as a prophet to dramatize in his life and teaching the will of the Unseen? To the impotent man at the Pool of Bethesda, whose infirmity was the cruel experience of eight and thirty years, the Founder of our religion said (John 5:14.), ‘Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.’ Was it (fitting the punishment to the crime proportionately) some outrageous sin as a boy, in the spring of years and days of his inexperienced youth of bodily life, that brought on him such physical sorrow, which youthful sin in its repetition would necessitate an even worse ill than this nearly forty years of sore affliction? ‘Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2.), was the question of the disciples to Jesus. And our query is—Sinned before he was born to deserve the penalty of being born blind?
“Then of John the Baptist—was he a reincarnation of Elijah, the prophet, who was to come again? (Malachi 4:5.). Jesus said he was Elijah, who indeed had come, and the evil-minded Jews had done unto him whatsoever they listed. Herod had beheaded him (Matt. 11:14 and 17:12.).
“Elijah and John the Baptist appear from our reference Bibles and Cruden’s Concordance to concur and commingle in one. The eighth verse of the first chapter of the second Book of Kings and the fourth verse of the third chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel note similarities in them and peculiarities of dress. Elijah, as we read, was a ‘hairy man and girt a leathern girdle about his loins,’ while John the Baptist had ‘his raiment of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins.’ Their home was the solitude of the desert. Elijah journeyed forty days and forty nights unto Horeb, the mount of God in the Wilderness of Sinai. John the Baptist was in the wilderness of Judea beyond Jordan baptizing. And their life in exile—a self-renunciating and voluntary withdrawal from the haunts of men—was sustained in a parallel remarkable way by food (bird—brought on wing—borne). ‘I have commanded the ravens to feed thee,’ said the voice of Divinity to the prophet; while locusts and wild honey were the food of the Baptist.
“’And above all,’ said our Lord of John the Baptist to the disciples, ‘if ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come.’
“Origen, in the second century, one of the most learned of the Fathers of the early Church, says that this declares the pre-existence of John the Baptist as Elijah before his decreed later existence as Christ’s forerunner.
“Origen also says on the text, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,’ that if our course be not marked out according to our works before this present life that now is, how would it not be untrue and unjust in God that the elder brother should serve the younger and be hated by God (though blessed of righteous Abraham’s son, of Isaac) before Esau had done anything deserving of servitude or given any occasion for the merciful Almighty’s hatred?
“Further, on the text (Ephesians 1:4.), ‘God who hath chosen us before the foundation of the world,’ Origen says that this suggests our pre-existence ere the world was.
“While Jerome, agreeing with Origen, speaks of our rest above, where rational creatures dwell before their descent to this lower world, and prior to their removal from the invisible life of the spiritual sphere to the visible life here on earth, teaching, as he says, the necessity of their again having material bodies ere, as saints and men made ‘perfect as our Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ they once more enjoy in the angel-world their former blessedness.
“Justin Martyr also speaks of the soul inhabiting the human body more than once, but thinks as a rule (instanced in the case of John the Baptist forgetting that he had been Elijah) it is not permitted us to remember our former experiences of this life while yet again we are in exile here as strangers and pilgrims in an uncongenial clime away from our heavenly home.
“Clemens Alexandrinus, and others of the Fathers, refer to reincarnation (or transmigration or metempsychosis, as it is called in the years that are passed of classic times and later now as re-birth) to remind us of the vital truth taught by our Lord in the words, ‘Ye must be born again.’”
These words, falling from the lips of a man so eminent in the staid conservative ranks of the Church of England, must attract the attention of every earnest seeker after the Truth of Christian Doctrine. If such a man, reared in such an environment, could find himself able to bear such eloquent testimony to the truth of a philosophy usually deemed foreign to his accepted creed, what might we not expect from a Church liberated from the narrow formal bounds of orthodoxy, and once more free to consider, learn and teach those noble doctrines originally held and taught by the Early Fathers of the Church of Christ?
While the majority of modern Christians bitterly oppose the idea that the doctrine of Metempsychosis ever formed any part of the Christian Doctrine, and prefer to regard it as a “heathenish” teaching, still the fact remains that the careful and unprejudiced student will find indisputable evidence in the writings of the Early Christian Fathers pointing surely to the conclusion that the doctrine of Metempsychosis was believed and taught in the Inner Circle of the Early Church.
The doctrine unquestionably formed a part of the Christian Mysteries, and has faded into comparative obscurity with the decay of spirituality in the Church, until now the average churchman no longer holds to it, and in fact regards as barbarous and heathenish that part of the teachings originally imparted and taught by the Early Fathers of the Church—the Saints and Leaders.
The Early Christians were somewhat divided in their beliefs concerning the details of Re-birth. One sect or body held to the idea that the soul of man was eternal, coming from the Father. Also that there were many degrees and kinds of souls, some of which have never incarnated in human bodies but which are living on many planes of life unknown to us, passing from plane to plane, world to world. This sect held that some of these souls had chosen to experiment with life on the physical plane, and were now passing through the various stages of the physical-plane life, with all of its pains and sorrows, being held by the Law of Re-birth until a full experience had been gained, when they would pass out of the circle of influence of the physical plane, and return to their original freedom.
Another sect held to the more scientific occult form of the gradual evolution of the soul, by repeated rebirth, on the physical plane, from Lower to Higher, as we have set forth in our lessons on “Gnani Yoga.” The difference in the teachings arose from the different conceptions of the great leaders, some being influenced by the Jewish Occult Teachings which held to the first above mentioned doctrine, while the second school held to the doctrine taught by the Greek Mystics and the Hindu Occultists. And each interpreted the Inner Teachings by the light of his previous affiliations.
And so, some of the early writings speak of “pre-existence,” while others speak of repeated “rebirth.” But the underlying principle is the same, and in a sense they were both right, as the advanced occultists know full well. The fundamental principle of both conceptions is that the soul comes forth as an emanation from the Father in the shape of Spirit; that the Spirit becomes plunged in the confining sheaths of Matter, and is then known as “a soul,” losing for a time its pristine purity; that the soul passes on through rebirth, from lower to higher, gaining fresh experiences at each incarnation; that the advancing soul passes from world to world, returning at last to its home laden with the varied experiences of life and becomes once more pure Spirit.
The early Christian Fathers became involved in a bitter controversy with the Greek and Roman philosophers, over the conception held by some of the latter concerning the absurd doctrine of the transmigration of the human soul into the body of an animal. The Fathers of the Church fought this erroneous teaching with great energy, their arguments bringing out forcibly the distinction between the true occult teachings and this erroneous and degenerate perversion in the doctrines of transmigration into animal bodies. This conflict caused a vigorous denunciation of the teachings of the Pythagorean and Platonic schools, which held to the perverted doctrine that a human soul could degenerate into the state of the animal.
Among other passages quoted by Origen and Jerome to prove the pre-existence of the soul was that from Jeremiah (1:5): “Before thou comest from the womb I sanctified thee and I ordained thee a prophet.” The early writers held that this passage confirmed their particular views regarding the pre-existence of the soul and the possession of certain characteristics and qualities acquired during previous birth, for, they argued, it would be injustice that a man, before birth, be endowed with uncarnal qualities; and that such qualities and ability could justly be the result only of best work and action. They also dwelt upon the prophecy of the return of Elijah, in Malachi 4:5. And also upon the (uncanonical) book “The Wisdom of Solomon,” in which Solomon says: “I was a witty child, and had a good Spirit. Yea, rather, being good, I came into a body undefiled.”
They also quoted from Josephus, in his book styled “De Bello Judico,” in which the eminent Jewish writer says: “They say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” They also quoted from Josephus, regarding the Jewish belief in Rebirth as evidenced by the recital of the instance in which, at the siege of the fortress of Jotapota, he sought the shelter of a cave in which were a number of soldiers, who discussed the advisability of committing suicide for the purpose of avoiding being taken prisoners by the Romans. Josephus remonstrated with them as follows:
“Do ye not remember that all pure spirits who are in conformity with the divine dispensation live on in the loveliest of heavenly places, and in the course of time they are sent down to inhabit sinless bodies; but the souls of those who have committed self-destruction are doomed to a region in the darkness of the underworld?”
Recent writers hold that this shows that he accepted the doctrine of Re-birth himself, and also as showing that it must have been familiar to the Jewish soldiery.
There seems to be no doubt regarding the familiarity of the Jewish people of that time with the general teachings regarding Metempsychosis. Philo positively states the doctrine as forming part of the teachings of the Jewish Alexandrian school. And again the question asked Jesus regarding the “sin of the man born blind” shows how familiar the people were with the general doctrine.
And so, the teachings of Jesus on that point did not need to be particularly emphasized to the common people, He reserving this instruction on the inner teachings regarding the details of Re-birth for his chosen disciples. But still the subject is mentioned in a number of places in the New Testament, as we shall see.
Jesus stated positively that John the Baptist was “Elias,” whose return had been predicted by Malachi (4:5). Jesus stated this twice, positively, i.e., “This is Elijah that is to come” (Matt. 11:14); and again, “But I say unto you that Elijah is come already, but they knew him not, but did unto him whatsoever they would.... Then understood the disciples that he spoke unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matt. 17:12-13.) The Mystics point out that Jesus saw clearly the fact that John was Elijah re-incarnated, although John had denied this fact, owing to his lack of memory of his past incarnation. Jesus the Master saw clearly that which John the Forerunner had failed to perceive concerning himself. The plainly perceptible characteristics of Elijah reappearing in John bear out the twice-repeated, positive assertion of the Master that John the Baptist was the re-incarnated Elijah.
And this surely is sufficient authority for Christians to accept the doctrine of Re-birth as having a place in the Church Teachings. But still, the orthodox churchmen murmur “He meant something else!” There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.
Another notable instance of the recognition of the doctrine by Jesus and His disciples occurs in the case of “the man born blind.” It may be well to quote the story.
“And as he passed by he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither did this man sin nor his parents.’” (John 9:1-3.)
Surely there can be no mistake about the meaning of this question, “Who did sin, this man or his parents?”—for how could a man sin before his birth, unless he had lived in a previous incarnation? And the answer of Jesus simply states that the man was born blind neither from the sins of a past life, nor from those of his parents, but from a third cause. Had the idea of re-incarnation been repugnant to the teachings, would not He have denounced it to His disciples? Does not the fact that His disciples asked Him the question show that they were in the habit of discoursing the problems of Re-birth and Karma with Him, and receiving instructions and answers to questions propounded to Him along these lines?
There are many other passages of the New Testament which go to prove the familiarity of the disciples and followers of Jesus with the doctrine of Re-birth, but we prefer to pass on to a consideration of the writings of the Early Christian Fathers in order to show what they thought and taught regarding the matter of Re-birth and Karma.
Among the great authorities and writers in the Early Church, Origen stands out pre-eminently as a great light. Let us quote from a leading writer, regarding this man and his teachings:
“In Origen’s writings we have a mine of information as to the teachings of the early Christians. Origen held a splendid and grandiose view of the whole of the evolution of our system. I put it to you briefly. You can read it in all its carefully, logically-worked-out arguments, if you will have the patience to read his treatise for yourselves. His view, then, was the evolutionary view. He taught that forth from God came all Spirits that exist, all being dowered with free-will; that some of these refused to turn aside from the path of righteousness, and, as a reward, took the place which we speak of as that of the angels; that then there came others who, in the exercise of their free-will, turned aside from the path of deity, and then passed into the human race to recover, by righteous and noble living, the angel condition which they had not been able to preserve; that others, still in the exercise of their free-will, descended still deeper into evil and became evil spirits or devils. So that all these Spirits were originally good; but good by innocence, not by knowledge. And he points out also that angels may become men, and even the evil ones themselves may climb up once more, and become men and angels again. Some of you will remember that one of the doctrines condemned in Origen in later days was that glorious doctrine that, even for the worst of men, redemption and restoration were possible, and that there was no such thing as an eternity of evil in a universe that came from the Eternal Goodness, and would return whence it came.”
And from the writings of this great man we shall now quote.
In his great work “De Principiis,” Origen begins with the statement that only God Himself is fundamentally and by virtue of His essential nature, Good. God is the only Good—the absolute perfect Good. When we consider the lesser stages of Good, we find that the Goodness is derived and acquired, instead of being fundamental and essential. Origen then says that God bestows free-will upon all spirits alike, and that if they do not use the same in the direction of righteousness, then they fall to lower estates “one more rapidly, another more slowly, one in a greater, another in a less degree, each being the cause of his own downfall.”
He refers to John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Ghost in his mother’s womb and says that it is a false notion to imagine “that God fills individuals with His Holy Spirit, and bestows upon them sanctification, not on the grounds of justice and according to their deserts, but undeservedly. And how shall we escape the declaration, ‘Is there respect of persons with God?’ God forbid. Or this, ‘Is there unrighteousness with God?’ God forbid this also. For such is the defense of those who maintain that souls come into existence with bodies.” He then shows his belief in re-birth by arguing that John had earned the Divine favor by reason of right-living in a previous incarnation.
Then he considers the important question of the apparent injustice displayed in the matter of the inequalities existing among men. He says, “Some are barbarians, others Greeks, and of the barbarians some are savage and fierce and others of a milder disposition, and certain of them live under laws that have been thoroughly approved, others, again, under laws of a more common or severe kind; while, some, again, possess customs of an inhumane and savage character rather than laws; and certain of them, from the hour of their birth, are reduced to humiliation and subjection, and brought up as slaves, being placed under the dominion either of masters, or princes, or tyrants. Some with sound bodies, some with bodies diseased from their early years, some defective in vision, others in bearing and speech; some born in that condition, others deprived of the use of their senses immediately after birth. But why should I repeat and enumerate all the horrors of human misery? Why should this be?”
Origen then goes on to combat the ideas advanced by some thinkers of his times, that the differences were caused by some essential difference in the nature and quality of the souls of individuals. He states emphatically that all souls are essentially equal in nature and quality and that the differences arise from the various exercise of their power of free-will. He says of his opponents:
“Their argument accordingly is this: If there be this great diversity of circumstances, and this diverse and varying condition by birth, in which the faculty of free-will has no scope (for no one chooses for himself either where, or with whom, or in what condition he is born); if, then, this is not caused by the difference in the nature of souls, i.e., that a soul of an evil nature is destined for a wicked nation and a good soul for a righteous nation, what other conclusion remains than that these things must be supposed to be regulated by accident or chance? And, if that be admitted, then it will be no longer believed that the world was made by God, or administered by His providence.”
“God who deemed it just to arrange His creatures according to their merit, brought down these different understandings into the harmony of one world, that He might adorn, as it were, one dwelling, in which there ought to be not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay (and some, indeed, to honor, and others to dishonor) with their different vessels, or souls, or understandings. On which account the Creator will neither appear to be unjust in distributing (for the causes already mentioned) to every one according to his wants, nor will the happiness or unhappiness of each one’s birth, or whatever be the condition that falls to his lot, be accidental.”
He then asserts that the condition of each man is the result of his own deeds.
He then considers the case of Jacob and Esau, which a certain set of thinkers had used to illustrate the unjust and cruel discrimination of the Creator toward His creatures. Origen contended that in this case it would be most unjust for God to love Jacob and hate Esau before the children were born, and that the only true interpretation of the matter was the theory that Jacob was being rewarded for the good deeds of past lives, while Esau was being punished for his misdeeds in past incarnations.
And not only Origen takes this stand, but Jerome also, for the latter says: “If we examine the case of Esau we may find he was condemned because of his ancient sins in a worse course of life.” (Jerome’s letter to Avitus.) Origen says:
“It is found not to be unrighteous that even in womb Jacob supplanted his brother, if we feel that he was worthily beloved by God, according to the deserts of his previous life, so as to deserve to be preferred before his brother.”
Origen adds, “This must be carefully applied to the case of all other creatures, because, as we formerly remarked, the righteousness of the Creator ought to appear in everything.” And again, “The inequality of circumstances preserves the justice of a retribution according to merit.”
Annie Besant (to whom we are indebted for a number of these quotations), says, concerning this position of Origen:
“Thus we find this doctrine made the defense of the justice of God. If a soul can be made good, then to make a soul evil is to a God of justice and love impossible. It cannot be done. There is no justification for it, and the moment you recognize that men are born criminal, you are either forced into the blasphemous position that a perfect and loving God creates a ruined soul and then punishes it for being what He has made it, or else that He is dealing with growing, developing creatures whom He is training for ultimate blessedness, and if in any life a man is born wicked and evil, it is because he has done amiss and must reap in sorrow the results of evil in order that he may learn wisdom and turn to good.”
Origen also considers the story of Pharaoh, of whom the Biblical writers say that “his heart was hardened by God.” Origen declares that the hardening of the heart was caused by God so that Pharaoh would more readily learn the effect of evil, so that in his future incarnations he might profit by his bitter experience. He says:
“Sometimes it does not lead to good results for a man to be cured too quickly, especially if the disease, being shut up in the inner parts of the body, rage with greater fierceness. The growth of the soul must be understood as being brought about not suddenly, but slowly and gradually, seeing that the process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances, during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others, again, follow close at hand, and some, again, a long way behind.”
He also says: “Those who, departing this life in virtue of that death which is common to all, are arranged in conformity with their actions and deserts—according as they shall be deemed worthy—some in the place called the ‘infernus,’ others in the bosom of Abraham, and in different localities or mansions. So also from these places, as if dying there, if the expression can be used, they come down from the ‘upper world’ to this ‘hell.’ For that ‘hell’ to which the souls of the dead are conducted from this world is, I believe, on account of this destruction, called ‘the lower hell.’ Everyone accordingly of those who descend to the earth is, according to his deserts, or agreeably to the position that he occupied there, ordained to be born in this world in a different country, or among a different nation, or in a different mode of life, or surrounded by infirmities of a different kind, or to be descended from religious parents, or parents who are not religious; so that it may sometimes happen that an Israelite descends among the Scythians, and a poor Egyptian is brought down to Judea.” (Origen against Celsus.)
Can you doubt, after reading the above quotation that Metempsychosis, Re-incarnation or Re-birth and Karma was held and taught as a true doctrine by the Fathers of the Early Christian Church? Can you not see that imbedded in the very bosom of the Early Church were the twin-doctrine of Re-incarnation and Karma. Then why persist in treating it as a thing imported from India, Egypt or Persia to disturb the peaceful slumber of the Christian Church? It is but the return home of a part of the original Inner Doctrine—so long an outcast from the home of its childhood.
The Teaching was rendered an outlaw by certain influences in the Church in the Sixth Century. The Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) condemned it as a heresy, and from that time official Christianity frowned upon it, and drove it out by sword, stake and prison cell. The light was kept burning for many years, however, by that sect so persecuted by the Church—the Albigenses—who furnished hundreds of martyrs to the tyranny of the Church authorities, by reason of their clinging faith to the Inner Teachings of the Church concerning Reincarnation and Karma.
Smothered by the pall of superstition that descended like a dense cloud over Europe in the Middle Ages, the Truth has nevertheless survived, and, after many fitful attempts to again burst out into flame, has at last, in this glorious Twentieth Century, managed to again show forth its light and heat to the world, bringing back Christianity to the original conceptions of those glorious minds of the Early Church. Once more returned to its own, the Truth will move forward, brushing from its path all the petty objections and obstacles that held it captive for so many centuries.
Let us conclude this lesson with those inspiring words of the poet Wordsworth, whose soul rose to a perception of the Truth, in spite of the conventional restrictions placed upon him by his age and land.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath elsewhere had its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.”
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