A Short History of Reincarnation Teachings

MANY EARLY PAGAN RELIGIONS held to some idea of resurrection, but the range of their conceptions is obscured by lack of original literature. Some ancients did hold to loosely defined concepts of spiritual change after death; in classical Greek mythology, for instance, Proteus could change his form at will. Though such ideas appear more closely allied to resurrection than to reincarnation, some of these early beliefs may have contained crude expressions of reincarnation.

Ancient Egypt

Many people have claimed that the ancient Egyptians taught reincarnation. This erroneous conclusion is based on references to Egyptian theories of transmigration of the soul made by ancient Greek writers. The Egyptian Book of the Dead speaks of the soul being able to change itself into various life forms after death. But this change is best understood as a sort of spiritual evolution in the heavenly realms, not a bodily return to this earth. James Henry

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Breasted, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, summed up the opinion of most Egyptologists when he said, "It was this notion which led Herodotus to conclude that the Egyptians believed in what we now call transmigration of souls, but this was a mistaken impression on his part."1

   The ancient Egyptians certainly believed in an afterlife in another realm or world, but references to reincarnation in the traditional understanding are simply absent. The practice of mummification and the filling of the burial chamber with practical items and symbolic trinkets was intended to prepare the deceased for the next world, not a return to this one.

The East

The precise historical origins of reincarnation doctrines in the East are difficult to pin down because Eastern philosophy is less concerned with the history and dating of events than the West. The historical sequence of events matters little to those who view life as a repetition of eternal cycles and the physical world as illusion.

   Despite this historical problem, it seems quite certain that the idea of reincarnation had its origin in the ancient speculative philosophies of India. Although some Hindu scholars insist that the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the Samhitas, teach reincarnation, no clear statement of the doctrine can be found in them. The majority of experts agree that the pervasive teaching of the Vedas is that of resurrection and immortality with the gods, similar to that which is found in other polytheistic religions of the time. On the whole, it would seem fair to suppose that if the early Vedas do not specifically define or speak of reincarnation, the idea was not taught by the early Aryans, who wrote these first Hindu scriptures.

   Swami Agehananda Bharati, an Austrian by birth, was initiated into Hinduism in India in the early 1950s and is

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now professor of anthropology at Syracuse University. Fluent in a half-dozen Indian and Tibetan languages, Bharati is considered one of the leading Western experts on Hinduism and Buddhism. In an interview he gave the following responses to questions I asked about the history of reincarnation teachings:

Q: How old is the idea of reincarnation and where does it come from?

Bharati: In its present form, the way people talk about it today, it is quite old, but it's not as old as people hope it would be. You have only a vestigial or marginal mention of something like transmigration in the older sections of the Veda. There is the first complete mention, though very brief, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is quite old. But the real assumptions having to do with reincarnation come in the Puranic age, at the time that the Puranas were composed, and then of course, through Buddhism. So you might say that it reached a state of common acceptance, I would think, around 300 B.C., but not earlier. So it is old, but in its highly articulated form it is not so old and the way it's talked about now, that's recent; that's "Theosophical Society."

Q: What about early Greek thought? Do you find it in Plato, for instance?

Bharati: Earlier than that. Pythagoras. But again, it's not elaborated. You find traces of a metempsychotic statement [reincarnation] in Pythagoras, which is older than Socrates. But it was never taken too seriously. Also, it was not commonly accepted and did not become part and parcel of the Greek religious system at any time.2

R.C. Zaehner, the well-known oriental scholar from Oxford University, comments similarly:

Of this [reincarnation] there is no trace in the Samhitas or Brahmanas [earliest scriptures], and it is only when we come to the Upanishads that we first meet with this doctrine which was to become central to all Hindu

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thought. In the Rig Veda [earliest Veda] the soul of the dead is carried aloft by the fire-god, Agni, who consumes the material body at cremation, to the heavenly worlds where it disports itself with the gods in perfect, carefree bliss. There will be eating and drinking of heavenly food and drink, reunion with father, mother, wife and sons. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2. 15-16), however, a distinction is made. Purified by the fire that has consumed their gross bodies, they pass on into the flame, the day, the world of the gods, and hence into the lightning. A spiritual person conducts them into the worlds of Brahman. Of these there is no return. They have achieved eternal bliss. The followers of the sacrificial cult, however, pass on into smoke, the night, the world of the fathers and finally into the moon. There they become the food of the gods, "but when that passes away from them, they descend into space, from space into the air, from air into the rain, and from rain into the earth. When they reach the earth they become food. Once again they are offered as an oblation in the fire of a man, and thence they are born in the fire of a woman. Rising up into the worlds, they circle round within them. But those who do not know these two ways, become worms, moths, and biting serpents." Here for the first time we meet the doctrine of rebirth.3

Thus, the idea of resurrection does seem to predate reincarnation. But a fully developed and popular doctrine of reincarnation seems to have been flourishing by about 300 B.C., and perhaps earlier than that. It is more apparent in the later scriptures, such as the late Upanishads and especially the semicanonical Bhagavad-Gita. The Bhagavad-Gita, probably rewritten or edited since the time of Christ, refers pointedly to reincarnation. Krishna says to Arjuna, the hero of this popular Indian epic: "Just as a person casts off worn-out garments and puts on others that are new, even so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out bodies

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and take on others that are new" (2.22).

   In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word Samsara ("wandering") is usually employed when speaking of the cycle of karma and rebirth. In fact, it is so prevalent that it is not really taught as a doctrine subject to debate. It is simply taken for granted by all Hindus as a law which governs life, much like gravity. In his book, The Tantric Tradition, Bharati points out that there are only two universally accepted presuppositions in Indian religion. One is the concept of the Brahman, and the other is reincarnation.

   Rebirth has always been an integral part of Buddhism as well, although as previously noted, the imagery is somewhat different. While speculation about reincarnation seems to have been fairly common among philosophers and sages in the Buddha's day (ca. 500 B.C.), it is uncertain whether he actually believed in its reality, except as an ethical concept or as the continuance of the life force in an abstract sense. Classical Buddhist doctrine postulates the existence of skandhas, which are unrelated psychic "causes" that are dissolved upon death and reactivated at birth. However, this is different from the Hindu concept of an individual soul reincarnating; it is more impersonal. Each individual is born with characteristics from a variety of past lives and other karmic sources, just as an automobile might be assembled from miscellaneous parts in a junkyard. The Buddha was therefore rather circumspect when discussing the particulars of reincarnation, as may be observed in this quotation from the Majjhima Nikaya:

I have not elucidated that the world is eternal, and I have not elucidated that the world is not eternal. I have not elucidated that the saint exists after death, I have not elucidated that the saint does not exist after death. I have not elucidated that the saint both exists and does not exist after death.4

In early Chinese religion and philosophy a similar problem is encountered. Although reincarnation is generally

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accepted in Taoism, its founder, the philosopher Lao-tse (ca. 604-531 B.C.), did not specifically teach it. Lao-tse's distant disciple Chuang-tzu (ca. 300 B.C.) did teach the doctrine, so it would appear that reincarnationist thought developed in China at about the same time it was being accepted in India.

The Middle East

Some references to reincarnation can be found in Zoroastrianism (Persian dualism), which flourished as early as the seventh century B.C., and in Mithraism. Mithraism was typical of the host of "mystery religions" which resulted from the social and political upheavals that followed in the wake of Alexander the Great's colonization of the eastern Mediterranean. Many ethnic and religious groups were uprooted and brought into contact with others as the Middle East became more cosmopolitan. The resultant melting pot acted as a crucible which forged new religious movements with occult and syncretistic overtones, blended with Greek and Persian philosophy. In many respects these cults were expanded versions of indigenous variations or tribal expressions of pantheistic shamanism, the "witch doctor" religions of spirit worship or pantheism that are common to almost all areas of the globe. A crude form of reincarnation or rebirth was (and still is) a fairly common belief in some of these primitive shamanistic systems. (Good examples can still be found in Africa, the South Pacific, rural Asia and even Alaska.)

   Islam, which arose some six centuries after Christ, is derived largely from biblical thought and history. As a result the orthodox mainstream of Islam has disavowed reincarnation, adhering to the Judeo-Christian concept of resurrection. However, the mystical wing of Islam, the Sufis, who incorporate considerable oriental teaching and practice into their Muslim faith, have been believers in reincarnation since their inception. The Sufis notwithstanding,

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rebirth is not taught in the Islamic scriptures, the Koran, and Muslims generally disavow the notion of reincarnation.

Western Roots

Some of the surviving literature from pre-Christian Europe also suggests reincarnational thinking. The original settlers of northern and central Europe, such as the Teutons, Celts and Druids, had fairly sophisticated religious systems which were probably influenced by classical Greece, where religious speculation and philosophy were honed to a razor's edge. W. Bryher notes in the foreword to Ruan that "we know something of Celtic doctrine from early Welsh poetry and Breton folklore. It seems to have had much in common with some forms of eastern thought. Life was considered as a time of trial: if its initiation was successfully passed, the spirit rested after death until the moment came for another return to earth. This continued until, after many lives some attained to the state of spiritual perfection."5

"That ancient doctrine." Plato used reincarnation concepts as a literary device in his stories and writings. Whether or not he actually believed the doctrine may never be known, but it was undoubtedly a popular and widely entertained belief in his time and he got plenty of mileage from it. His doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the soul's de-identification with the body certainly encouraged speculation about reincarnation, or "transmigration of souls" as it was known to the Greeks. He speaks of it by quoting his mentor, Socrates (d. 399 B.C.), who referred to it laconically as "that ancient doctrine."

   Since Socrates called reincarnation an ancient doctrine (if Plato's quotation is to be taken at face value), it would seem that ideas of rebirth find their genesis sometime before 500 B.C., at least in the cruder and speculative formulations. While it is virtually impossible to put a date

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on the exact beginning of coherent reincarnation teachings, 1000 B.C. would be a generous estimate for the date of its Indian roots, with 800-600 B.C. being perhaps closer to the mark. In any event, the evidence clearly indicates that it was a speculative philosophy that developed primarily around the Hindu scriptures, the best example of which is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

   Further developments. After Greek influence in the West faded with the demise of Alexander the Great's empire, the reincarnation torch passed to the Romans, where it was held aloft by the influential Stoics; by the time the Roman Empire hit its peak, the entire Mediterranean area was heavily influenced by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus and others. This philosophy of the sophisticated and erudite ancients was mixed in varying proportions with the mystery religions, influences from Persia and India, plus elements from the Greek and Roman pantheon. On the spiritual outskirts were the Gnostics, who attempted to reduce Christianity to just another mystery religion with Jesus as the leader. Relying heavily on esoteric, "secret" interpretations of the Bible, Gnosticism taught a vague form of rebirth, although it was merely a secondary doctrine. Gnosticism became the major external challenge to the early church, as we shall see in chapter four.

   Despite the influence of Christendom, which has dominated Western civilization since the fourth century, the mystical and occultic traditions have periodically raised their heads in Europe, notably in such groups as the Hermetic Orders, Albigenses, Cathari and Knights Templars.6 Finally, gnostic occultism made a substantial comeback in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century with the founding of the Theosophical Society, the influence of the American transcendentalists (for example, Emerson and Thoreau) and the arrival of Hindu Vendant philosophy promoted by the Ramakrishna Mission and Swami Vivekananda.

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   The slowly ripening fruit of the esoteric "tree of knowledge" has nearly arrived at harvest time. The many gurus, "enlightened masters," holistic health centers, mediums and seances, parapsychology groups, spirit communications, witchcraft, numerous Eastern cults, Yoga and Zen have all espoused some form of gnostic philosophy and mystical experience as their unifying metaphysic, and reincarnation is certainly a basic tenet in this latest revival of ancient speculation.

   The historic train of gnostic and pantheistic influence is succinctly traced and summed up by the well-known Christian writer C.S. Lewis:

Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are. It may even be the most primitive of all religions . . . . It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak; . . . their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people . . . So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, . . . but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long . . . It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If "religion" means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism is religion. And "religion" in that sense has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent namely Christianity.7

Chapter Four  ||  Table of Contents


1. James H. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912), p. 277.

2. Swami Agehananda Bharati to author, 10 March 1981, Aarhus, Denmark.

3. R.C. Zaehner, Hinduism (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 75, 77.

4. Quoted in Joseph Head and S. L. Cranston, eds., Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery (New York: Warner Books, 1977), p. 61.

5. W. Byrher, Ruan (New York: Pantheon, 1960), pp. 8-9.

6. Occult is usually taken to mean black magic and the like, but the Latin root of the word means "hidden" or "secret," an allusion to the esoteric "deeper" truths supposedly known only to the enlightened elite. Many small movements of esoteric Christianity arose in the second millennium A.D. under the rubric of Gnosticism.

7. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan Co., 1947), pp. 82-83.

Chapter Four  ||  Table of Contents