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“A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION”
Krishna Consciousness and the Judeo-Christian Tradition
A Guide to Interfaith Discussion
There are many passages throughout the Old Testament which speak of death with finality, and make no mention of an afterlife. "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return," said the Lord to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:17. Humans lost a physical immortality, and there is no mention of existence beyond the body.
Psalm 49:12 says man is like the animals that perish. Psalm 103:15 says mans’ days re like the grass or a flower of the field. Psalm 115:17 says, "The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence." According to Psalm 143:3, those long dead "dwell in darkness." The Book of Ecclesiastes (3:19-20) says men are like beasts; "as one dieth, so dieth the other," that man "hath no pre-eminence above a beast"; "all go into one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." Job (6:18) teaches that there is no existence after death; men "go to nothing, and perish," and "he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more." (7:9)
Reincarnationist thought, nonetheless, has found its way into Judaism. The Pythagoreans, Neoplatonists, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have all forbidden animal slaughter at various times in human history because of a belief in transmigration of souls and, consequently, the equality of all living beings. The doctrine of reincarnation is taught in the Kabbala, or mystical Judaic tradition, and was used to advocate ethical vegetarianism in Sedeh Hermed—a huge, talmudic encyclopedia authored by Rabbi Hayyim Hezekiah Medini (1837-1904).
In Wheels of a Soul, Rabbi Phillip S. Berg, a renowned contemporary Kabbalist, explains: "...the concept of reincarnation is by no means exclusive to Judaism. The idea was prevalent among Indians on the American continent; and in the Orient, the teaching of reincarnation is widespread and influential. It is the basis of most of the philosophical systems of India, where hundreds of millions accept the truth of reincarnation the way we accept the truth of gravity—as a great natural and inevitable law that only a fool would question."
According to Rabbi Jacob Shimmel: "We are reborn until we reach perfection in following the Torah...In Hebrew, reincarnation is called gilgul, and there is a whole section of the Kabbala entitled Sefer HaGilgulim. This deals with details in regard to reincarnation.
One remarkable figure from this mystical school of Jewish thought is Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72). Born in Jerusalem, he became a brilliant student, noted for his intelligence, logic and reasoning abilities. By the age of 15, Luria had surpassed all the sages in Egypt in his understanding of talmudic law.
With a thirst for higher knowledge, he studied the Zohar and the Kabbala. For seven years, he lived as an ascetic on the banks of the Nile River; fasting often, seeing his wife only on the Sabbath, and merely for brief conversation, if necessary. During this time, he experienced many strange voices and ecstatic visions.
At times, the prophet Elijah appeared to teach him the secrets of the Torah. Luria later went to Safed (in Palestine) and became the spiritual master of the community of mystics there. He taught that the good souls in heaven could be brought down to inhabit human bodies.
Luria saw spirits everywhere. He heard them whispering in the rushing water of rivers, in the movement of trees, in the wind and in the songs of birds. He could see the soul of a man leave the body at the time of death. Intimate conversations were often held with the souls of past figures in the Bible, the talmudic sages and numerous respected rabbis.
Luria’s disciples said he could perform exorcisms and miracles and speak the language of animals. They wrote: "Luria could read faces, look into the souls of men, recognize that souls migrated from body to body. He could tell you what commandment a man had fulfilled and what sins he had committed since youth."
Is reincarnationist thought compatible with Christianity? The first books of the Bible speak of man as a physical being, formed from the dust and then infused with a divine "breath of life." New Testament writings, however, describe the individual as a spiritual being, clothed in an earthly body of flesh.
The New Testament clearly distinguishes between the carnal and the spiritual. "It is the spirit that giveth the body life," taught Jesus, "the flesh profit nothing." (John 6:63) Paul taught that Jesus had both an earthly and a spiritual nature (Romans 1:3), and referred to his own spiritual self . (Romans 1:9)
According to Paul, the soul can do no good while it is in a body doomed to death; it is merely a prisoner to sin and the flesh. (Romans 7:18-24) The brethren are to behave in a spiritual manner, rather than in a fleshly way. (Romans 8:4; 13:14; I Peter 2:11)
The brethren have been called to liberty; they should not misuse their freedom as an opportunity to gratify the flesh. If they behave in a spiritual way, they will not carry out the desires of the flesh. The desires of the Spirit and those of the flesh are in opposition to one another. (Galatians 5:13,16-17) The deeds of the flesh are evident in immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, magic arts, animosities, strife, jealousy, bad temper, outbreaks of selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing. Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the Spirit’s fruition is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, generosity, fidelity, gentleness and self-control. Those who belong to Christ have "crucified the flesh with its passions and desires;" they "live by the Spirit" and are "directed by the Spirit." (Galatians 5:19-26)
To be carnally minded is to die, but those under the control of the Spirit have transcended their lower, bodily nature. (Romans 8:5-14) Paul regarded envy, strife and divisions among the brethren as carnal or unspiritual. (I Corinthians 3:3) He distinguished between saving the spirit of an individual and the destruction of the person’s flesh. (I Corinthians 5:5)
God’s kingdom is not carnal, but spiritual: "But I make this statement, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither does the perishable inherit the imperishable...For this perishable must put on imperishability and this mortal must put on immortality. (I Corinthians 15:50,53)
According to Paul, the body is like a lump of clay. (Romans 9:21; II Corinthians 4:7) Although one’s outer nature decays, one’s inner self is continually renewed in spiritual life. (II Corinthians 4:16-17) The body is merely a temporary, earthly tent in which the soul resides; the spirits of the faithful shall soon be clothed in everlasting, heavenly bodies. (II Corinthians 5:1-3) The soul resides inside a body of flesh. (II Corinthians 10:3) To identify with the body is to be absent from the Lord. (II Corinthians 5:8-10)
Paul gave an example from his own life to distinguish between being with Christ and remaining "in the body," to illustrate that one’s actual self is spiritual and separate from the physical body. (Philippians 1:21-24) He told his followers to set their sights on heavenly, not earthly things, and to put to death their earthly nature. (Colossians 3:1-5)
Before salvation, many of the brethren indulged in fleshly desires, and followed the inclinations of their lower natures. (Ephesians 2:3) The sensual are considered "lost," because "their minds are set on earthly things." Paul told the faithful their real home is in heaven, and they would soon be clothed in spiritual bodies. (Philippians 3:18-21)
The New Testament teaches that those who have become God’s children through Christ owe their birth not to flesh or blood, but to a transcendent God. (John 1:12-13) There is a difference between a physical birth and a spiritual birth. (John 3:6-8) Jesus made a distinction between teaching "of earthly things" and "of heavenly things." (John 3:12) Jesus said his home was heaven (John 3:12), and that neither he (John 8:23) nor his disciples (John 15:19) were of this world. His disciple John repeated this message to the brethren. (I John 4:4-6)
The brethren have undergone a spiritual rebirth, not from a perishable but an imperishable seed through the word of God. The flesh will decay, but the word of God is eternal. (I Peter 2:23-25) One must not love this world nor the things in this world. To do so is to alienate oneself from God’s love, because the passions of this world are flickering and temporary. (I John 2:15-17)
This world belongs to the devil (II Corinthians 4:4), this present world is evil (Galatians 1:4), and pure religion means keeping oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). The brethren have been granted "great and precious promised blessings," so that they "might become sharers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world that arises from passion." (II Peter 1:4)
"He who loves his life will lose it," taught Jesus, "and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life...For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25; John 12:25) Jesus thus taught his followers to seek the eternal treasures in heaven rather than pursue temporary, earthly gain. He demanded the self-sacrifice and renunciation of earthly possessions and family ties and duties. (Matthew 6:19-21, 6:24-34, 8:21-22, 10:34-39, 19:20-21,29; Luke 9:57-62, 12:51-53, 14:25-26,33; James 5:1-3)
Jesus himself had no interest in worldly disputes over money and property. (Luke 12:13-14) He taught that life is meant for more than the accumulation of material goods. He condemned those who lay up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God. (Luke 12:15-21) In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus showed concern for materialistic persons (Luke 16:19-31). It is difficult for those attached to earthly riches to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:16-24; Mark 10:17-23; Luke 18:18-25)
In the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus says, "The kingdom of God does not come by looking for it, neither will they say, ‘Look! Here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ for the kingdom of God is in your midst. (Luke 17:21) Another translation reads, "...the kingdom of God is within you." In either case, these verses indicate that the kingdom of God is not earthly or material. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus explicitly tells Pontius Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36)
Jesus also told his disciples, "In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2) Paul spoke of being "caught up as far as the third heaven...whether in the body or out of the body I do not know..." (II Corinthians 12:2-3)
On the question of the afterlife, Paul taught that God rewards each individual according to his deeds. (Romans 2:6) One reaps what one sows. (II Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 6:7)
Some souls remain entangled in decaying flesh and blood, while others turn to the Spirit. "The one who sows for his own flesh will harvest ruin from his flesh; while the one who sows for the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit." (Galatians 6:8) According to Paul, a kernel of spirit is sown into a particular kind of body.
"...God gives it a body as He plans," explained Paul, "and to each seed its particular body. All flesh is not the same; but one kind is human, another is animal, another is fowl, and another fish." (I Corinthians 15:38-39) Paul further distinguished between earthly, or physical bodies, and heavenly, or spiritual bodies. "There are heavenly bodies and also earthly bodies; but the radiance of the heavenly is one kind and that of the earthly is another kind." (I Corinthians 15:40)
Resurrection, then, as taught by Paul, is not the Old Testament doctrine of the reassembling of dust into living bodies, but rather, the clothing of the spirit with a new body; the placing of a kernel of spirit into a new body, from where its existence continues.
Paul’s letters emphasize the distinction between the soul and the body, the clothing of the spirit with a new body, and the eternal nature of the soul and its relationship to God versus the temporary nature of the flesh and the material world. These concepts can all be found in the doctrine of reincarnation.
The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah, "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." (Jeremiah 1:4-5) In prayer, Jesus spoke of his eternal relationship with God, who loved him before the founding of the world. (John 8:58, 17:24) Paul wrote to both the Romans and the Ephesians that God knew the faithful and favored them before the world even came into being. (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:4)
During the second century, the Christian teacher, Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, taught that the soul inhabits more than one body in its earthly sojourn. He even suggested that those who lead carnal lives and thus deprive themselves of the capacity to serve God may be reborn as beasts.
The earliest Christians who taught the pre-existence of the soul came to be known as the "pre-existiani." Clement of Alexandria wrote with interest about what he called "metensomatosis." "...we have existed from the beginning," wrote Clement in his Stromata, "for in the beginning was the Logos...Not for the first time does (the Logos) show pity on us in our wanderings; he pitied us from the beginning."
Origen (185-254), was one of the fathers of the early Christian Church, and its most accomplished biblical scholar. His influence upon the early Church was second only to that of Augustine. Origen taught that God creates spirits, and all spirits are created equal. All are endowed with free will. Some fall into sin, becoming demons, or imprisoned in bodies. This process of growth or retardation is continuous. A human being, at the time of death, may become an angel or a demon. Origen gave a highly allegorical interpretation of Genesis and the Fall from paradise.
Origen held that the various orders of living creatures in the world corresponded to the varying degrees of perfection and imperfection. All of God’s children are created free and equal, but received their present condition "as rewards or punishments for the manner in which they used their free will." Therefore, "as befits the degree of (the soul’s) fall into evil, it is clothed with the body of this or that irrational animal." (Compare Genesis 3:21)
Writing in the third century, he explained: "By some inclination toward evil, certain souls...come into bodies, first of men; then through their association with the irrational passions, after the allotted span of human life, they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of...plants. From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place." (De Principiis, Book III, Chapter 5)
Origen based his theology upon passages from Scripture. The prophet Elijah lived in the 9th century B.C. Elijah never died, but was lifted up into heaven. (II Kings 2:11) In the closing lines of the Old Testament, Malachi recorded the prophecy: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord." (Malachi 3:1, 4:5) Elijah would precede the Messiah.
When the disciples asked Jesus about the prophecy that Elijah must precede the Messiah, Jesus replied, "Elijah will come indeed and will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come and they did not recognize him, but have done to him as they pleased." The disciples then realized he was talking about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:9-13) Jesus even told the multitudes, "It is he (John) of whom it is written, ‘Behold I send My messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the road before you’...If you will accept it, this is Elijah who was to come." (Matthew 11:10,14; Luke 7:27)
Many in Jesus’ day believed him to be the reincarnation of an Old Testament prophet. In Matthew 16:13-14, when Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" they replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." Similarly, in Luke 9:18-19, when Jesus asked, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" his disciples respond, "John the Baptist; but some say Elijah, and others that one of the old prophets has risen again."
Mark 16:14-16 records King Herod saying of Jesus, "John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these miracles are being done by him." Others said, "He is Elijah," while still others believed, "He is a prophet like one of the prophets of old."
Tertullian, one of the earliest of the Latin Fathers of the Christian Church, vehemently attacked any and all reincarnationist interpretations of Scripture. His attacks indicate the widespread influence of reincarnationist thought upon Christianity at the time.
Tertullian took the position that the above passages do not presuppose reincarnation. Since Elijah was lifted into heaven (II Kings 2:11), he never died. His appearance as John the Baptist was not reincarnation, but a return visit. However the Gospel of Luke (1:5-25,57-80) indicates that Elijah did not return to earth as a mature man, but was miraculously reconceived and reborn as John the Baptist.
Origen remarked that the fact that the Jews specifically asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah (John 1:21) indicated "that they believed in ‘metensomatosis,’ as a doctrine inherited from their ancestors and therefore in no way in conflict with the secret teachings of their masters."
In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who had been blind from his birth. The disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents? Why was he born blind?"
Since reincarnation was a widespread belief during the time of Jesus, (as were beliefs in apocalypses, judgement day, heaven, hell and resurrection), one cannot help but wonder if the disciples had reincarnation in mind. For if the man had been born blind, he could not have committed the sin in his present life.
Jesus did not reject the notion of pre-existence as a solution to the problem of evil. He merely replied that this man was afflicted so that "the works of God should be displayed in him," and that it was their duty to practice the works of a merciful God. (John 9:4)
On another occasion, Simon (Peter) said to Jesus, "Look, we have given up everything and have followed you..." Jesus replied: "I assure you, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mothers or father or children or fields on account of me and the gospel, but will receive a hundred times over now in this age homes and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life." (Matthew 19:27,29; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 18:28-30)
It is difficult to imagine these rewards—including hundreds of relatives, parents and children—being fulfilled in one brief lifetime.
According to Origen, God sent forth Christ to bring about the redemption of all souls; a salvation so universal, even the demons will be saved. "The purified spirit will be brought home; it will no longer rebel; it will acquiesce in its lot."
In the 3rd century, Chalcidius taught, "Souls who have failed to unite themselves with God, are compelled by the law of destiny to begin a new kind of life, entirely different from their former, until they repent of their sins." Arnobius (A.D. 290) said, "We die many times, and often do we rise from the dead." (Adversus Gentes) St. Gregory of Nyssa (257-332) taught, "It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth it must be accomplished in future lives." (Great Catechism)
St. Jerome (340-420), wrote in Epistola ad Demetriadem, that "The doctrine of transmigration has been secretly taught from ancient times to small numbers of people, as a traditional truth which was not to be divulged." In his Confessions, St. Augustine (354-430) prayed, "Say, Lord to me...say, did my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother’s womb?...and what before that life again, O God my joy, was I anywhere or in any body?"
Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais (370-430), wrote in his Treatise On Dreams, "Philosophy speaks of souls being prepared by a course of transmigrations...When first it comes down to earth, it (the soul) embarks on this animal spirit as on a boat, and through it is brought into contact with matter...The soul which did not quickly return to the heavenly region from which it was sent down to earth had to go through many lives of ‘wandering.’"
Dr. Geddes MacGregor, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, and author of over twenty books, believes reincarnation is compatible with the Christian faith.
"The Bible does not explicitly teach reincarnationism," he admits. "That is to say, there is no pronouncement on the subject, either in the Old Testament or in the New, to which one could point and by means of it compel the acceptance of a person who felt bound to receive as divine revelation everything that is clearly and unequivocally affirmed in Holy Scripture. No such biblical warrant for reincarnation exists.
"That, however, does not take us far, since much the same could be said of the doctrine of the Trinity, which is surely held to be a classic expression of orthodox Christian belief about God. Except for the text in the first letter of John (1 John 5:7), known by scholars to be a very late interpolation, no direct biblical warrant exists for the doctrine of the Trinity as formulated by the Church.
"That absence of direct biblical warrant for the doctrine of the Trinity does not mean, however, that the trinitarian formula is antipathetic to the teaching of the New Testament writers. On the contrary, it was held to be, and within Christian orthodoxy it has continued to be accounted, a proper formulation of a great truth about God that is implicit in New testament teaching. There is no reason at all why the doctrine of reincarnation might not be in a similar case.
"Might not an orthodox Christian see the samsara or chain of incarnations, of which we hear so much in Hindu lore, as the most satisfactory way in which to conceptualize the journey of the soul to the state that Christians traditionally call heaven or the Beatific Vision, in which the soul at last is so completely purified that it can stand in the right relation to God and, as the Old Scottish Catechism promises, ‘enjoy Him for ever’ ?
At first sight, at any rate, it would now seem that Christians, far from resisting reincarnationism as an exotic, alien idea, should be ready to embrace it as one that might both enlighten their minds and add a new and exhilarating dimension to their faith."
Although belief in reincarnation was widespread in early Christianity, orthodoxy prevailed. The doctrine of reincarnation never really caught on, in part, because of the apocalyptic mood of the early Church. The Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead were thought to be imminent. During the fourth century, Origen became an easy target for ecclesiastical authorities seeking victory in power struggles with other theological factions within the Christian Church.
Under circumstances that to this day remain shrouded in mystery, the Byzantine emperor Justinian in A.D. 553 banned the teachings of pre-existence from what had by then become the Roman Catholic Church. During that era, numerous Church writings were destroyed. The doctrine of reincarnation was forced underground, but persistently appeared in sects such as the Cathari, the Paulicians, and the Bogomils.
The Cathari (who were also vegetarian) taught that the reason we are on earth in the first place is we are fallen souls forced to be repeatedly incarcerated in bodies, and must seek salvation from transmigrating from one body to another. The Cathari saw Christ as the means of divine redemption from the wheel of death and rebirth.
According to Dr. MacGregor: "Reincarnation is, of course, a kind of resurrection. Great importance was attached by Christian theologians, however, to the notion of the resurrection of the ‘same body’ that we now have, though in a glorified form. The so-called Athanasian Creed affirms that all men shall rise again with their bodies...and a council held at the Lateran...asserted that all shall rise again with their own bodies...
"St. Thomas Aquinas considered that the body that is resurrected must be in some sense the same as the one on earth; otherwise, he thought, one would have to talk, not of a resurrection, but of the assumption of a new body...such very Latin teaching about a carnis resurrectio does not seem to fit Paul’s teaching in the New Testament, which is that the body is to be of a new order...not otherwise recognizable as the same body as the one on earth. The curious notion of the revivification of the material particles of the body does not arise in St. Paul."
Both Origen and Clement of Alexandria spoke of an intermediate state, considering it one of punishment, training and purification. Ambrose, the teacher of Augustine, taught that departed souls await the end of the world in various "habitations," which vary according to their deeds on earth.
Augustine taught that the souls of men are immediately judged upon death, with some going to a place of purification. By the time of Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of purgatory as a place of punishment for those not yet fit for residence in heaven was well established.
St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), taught that when one dies, one immediately recognizes the impediments which prevent one from fully enjoying God, and therefore, one voluntarily throws oneself into purification. The soul desires final union with God, which theologians call the Beatific vision in heaven.
In its purification, the soul suffers pain, yet this pain is the discovery of obstacles within itself that impede its own progress towards God. Such a doctrine is compatible with reincarnationist thought; reincarnation may be seen as a kind of purgatory; purification towards reunion with God.
In addition to the notion of purgatory, there was also the sate of "limbo." Two kinds of limbo were recognized: limbus patrum and limbus infantium. The first was assigned to holy men and women who died before the advent of Christ and had to await his descent to their abode to retrieve them and carry them up to heaven. The second was given to infants who died before baptism and were, therefore, ineligible for heaven. Both states of limbo were thought to be pleasant, but incomparable to heavenly joy or bliss.
Dr. MacGregor explains that conflicting theological and Scriptural accounts of the afterlife have caused many, including regular churchgoers, not to concern themselves with such affairs. Many Christian theologians have discouraged "idle speculation" on the afterlife. Luther recognized the theological difficulties, while Calvin, in a commentary on I Corinthians 13:12, questioned his own doctrine of the eternality of the soul. According to Calvin, Paul intentionally gave no details on the subject, since details "could not help our piety."
Dr. MacGregor suggests, however, that just as we have ceased to take literally Archbishop Ussher’s biblical concept of a 6,000 year old universe, so also might reincarnation be consistent with a more enlightened world view.
During the Renaissance, a new flowering of public interest in reincarnation emerged. One of the prominent figures in this revival was Italy’s leading philosopher and poet Giordano Bruno. Bruno had entered the Dominican Order at the age of fifteen. As a scholar, Bruno upheld the Copernican world view, that the Sun—and not the earth—is the center of our cosmos, teaching that there are an infinity of worlds and that many are inhabited.
Galileo had announced other worlds and Giordano Bruno spoke of other life forms. Bruno believed there are no privileged reference frames for viewing the universe; the universe looks essentially the same from wherever one happens to view it. Bruno taught that at death the soul passes out of one body and enters into another.
Because of his teachings, Bruno was ultimately brought before the Inquisition. In his profession of faith before the Inquisition, Bruno acknowledged that, speaking as a Catholic, he must say that the soul at death goes directly to heaven, hell or purgatory. However, Bruno insisted that as a philosopher who had given much thought to the question, he found it reasonable that since the soul is different from the body, yet is never found apart from the body, it passes from one body to another, as Pythagoras had taught 2,000 years before.
In his final answers to the charges brought against him, Bruno defiantly responded that the soul "is not the body" and that "it may be in one body or in another, and pass from body to body." Giordano Bruno was eventually burned at the stake in Rome on February 17, 1600. His teachings influenced 17th century philosophers such as Leibniz and Spinoza.
Since the Renaissance, belief or interest in reincarnation has continued to spread in the West. Shakespeare, Milton and Coleridge made references to it in their literature. The French philosopher Voltaire wrote that the doctrine of reincarnation is "neither absurd nor useless," insisting, "It is not more surprising to be born twice than once."
Many of America’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, accepted or expressed interest in reincarnation. Napoleon told his generals that in a previous life he was Charlemagne. Goethe, the great German poet, also believed in reincarnation. Schiller, Blake, Shelley, Browning, Southey and Wordsworth alluded to reincarnation in their own writings as well. American poets Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier and Whitman all showed interest in and sympathy towards reincarnationist views. American Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau wrote with deep interest in reincarnation.
French author Honore Balzac wrote Seraphita, a novel devoted entirely to reincarnation. "All human beings go through a previous life," wrote Balzac. "Who knows how many fleshly forms the heir of heaven occupies before he can be brought to understand the value that silence and solitude whose starry plains are but the vestibule of spiritual worlds?" Jack London also made reincarnation the main theme of his novel The Star Rover, and had the central character exclaim, "Oh, incalculable times again shall I be born."
In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens explored the possibility of reincarnation and recalling events from past lives. Paul Gaugin wrote that when the physical organism is destroyed, "the soul survives." It then takes on another body, "degrading or elevating according to merit or demerit." Poets W.B. Yeats and John Masefield wrote with conviction about reincarnation. British statesman Lloyd George believed in rebirth. Reincarnation was a major theme in Ulysses, by James Joyce.
U.S. auto magnate Henry Ford told an interviewer, "I adopted the theory of reincarnation when I was twenty-six...Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives." U.S. general George Patton similarly believed he had acquired his military skills on ancient battlefields.
"Has it occurred to you that transmigration is at once an explanation and a justification of the evil of the world?" wrote W. Somerset Maugham in The Razor’s Edge. "If the evils we suffer are the result of sins committed in our past lives, we can bear them with resignation and hope that if in this one we strive toward virtue our future lives will be less afflicted."
One of the greatest modern psychologists, Carl Jung, believed in reincarnation, and saw its potential as a tool in understanding consciousness and the self. British biologist Thomas Huxley wrote that reincarnation has served as a "means of constructing a plausible vindication of the ways of the cosmos to man." Authors J.D. Salinger and Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) made reincarnation a central theme in their literatures as well.
Sir William Jones, a Christian missionary who helped introduce East Indian philosophy to Europe in the 18th century, wrote: "I am no Hindu, but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning a future state (reincarnation) to be incomparably more rational, more pious, and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by Christians on punishment without end.
In an essay entitled "Christian Metempsychosis," the 19th century American philosopher Francis Bowen of Harvard, admitted, "An eternity of either reward or punishment would seem to be inadequately earned by one brief period of probation on earth."
Arthur Schopenhauer, the great 19th century German philosopher, once observed: "Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: It is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that man was created out of nothing, and that his present birth is his first entrance into life."
In his monumental work, The Story of Christian Origins, secular historian Dr. Martin A. Larson notes that according to Hindu, Buddhist, and Pythagorean doctrine, "hell itself was actually a kind of purgatory, since it was a place in which perhaps a majority of all people underwent repeated refinement and punishment," before being reborn as a plant, animal, or human being.
Examining the concept of eternal damnation, Dr. Geddes MacGregor concludes: "It is no wonder that purgatory seemed by comparison, despite its anguish, a demonstration of God’s mercy. Purgatory is indeed a far more intelligible concept, in the light of what the Bible says about the nature of God. Even the crassest forms of purgatory suggest moral and spiritual evolution.
"Surely, too, even countless rebirths as a beggar lying in misery and filth on the streets of Calcutta would be infinitely more reconcilable to the Christian concept of God than is the traditional doctrine of everlasting torture in hell. The appeal of reincarnationism to anyone nurtured on hell-fire sermons and tracts is by no means difficult to understand."
Archbishop Passavalli (1820-1897), a learned Roman Catholic archbishop accepted the teaching of reincarnation from two disciples of the Polish seer Towianski. Archbishop Passavalli admitted that reincarnation is not condemned by the Church, and that it is not in conflict with any Catholic dogma.
Another Catholic priest who came to believe in reincarnation was Edward Dunski, whose Letters were published in 1915. Many other priests in Poland and Italy have believed in reincarnation, influenced by the great mystic Andrzej Towianski (1799-1878).
In her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, Maude Gonne wrote that when a priest asked her why she was not a Catholic, and she replied, "Because I believe in reincarnation," she was told: "The soul comes from God and returns to God when purified, when all things will become clear; and who can tell the stages of its purification? It may be possible that some souls work out their purification on this earth."
Anthropologist Dr. Margaret Mead observed in February 1971: "It is an open question whether any behavior based on fear of eternal punishment can be regarded as ethical or should be regarded as merely cowardly."
The Reverend Alvin Hart says, "In the Second Letter of Peter, the word exitus (‘exit or ‘a way out’) is used for ‘dying.’ The expression implies that something does exist which at death goes away, or ‘exits’ the body.
"Reincarnation would explain a great many things—such as just where the soul goes after death. After all, it is unlikely that a merciful God would send a sinner to ‘hell’ after just one birth into this...world...It takes time...
"Reincarnation was also accepted by many philosophers in the early church. To my way of thinking it is a logical explanation of what happens at the time of death. Reincarnation is an acceptable answer."
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09 - India’s
Religion of Grace
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