The topic of reincarnation, while very dominant in the collective imagination of Eastern traditions, remains marginalized in Western society. Recent scientific research on the topic, however, is reintroducing this age old belief into Western popular culture, with interesting therapeutic applications in the fields of psychology, psychiatry as well as alternative health. Psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss, through the use of past-life regression in his clinical practise and psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, through his ground-breaking cross-cultural reincarnation studies, are revolutionizing our modern understanding of the soul’s journey through time and space. What if we weren’t limited to a single life on earth? What if our soul had many lives to experience the physical world, before journeying back to a unified field of consciousness? My article in this section seeks to clarify some of these age old questions, by putting reincarnation back into its proper historical context.
I will first attempt to illustrate the manner in which the doctrine of reincarnation, also known as the transmigration of the soul or metempsychosis, was once a very respected belief, in ancient times, before being ousted from early Western discourse by the advent of modern Christianity. The gradual reintroduction of reincarnation, in the latter half of the 20th century, by such forward thinking pioneers, as the aforementioned psychiatrists will be examined in the second part of this study, as I will summarize the current work being conducted in this fascinating field.
We know that Eastern religions – Hindouism, Bouddhism and Jainism- all adhere to the karmic laws of causality. But it’s interesting to note that The Egyptians, the Druids and the Greeks – starting with Pythagoras- were all believers in the concept of reincarnation as well. In fact, all of Western antiquity was familiar with this principle. The transmigration of the soul is found as a central theme in at least three masterworks of the Greek philosopher Plato, including the Phaedo, The Banquet and in the 10th book of Plato’s Republic: The Myth of Er The Pamphylian. The story of this soldier who dies on the battlefield, only to be brought back to life, in order to tell of what he saw on the Other Side is a powerful testament to the ancient belief in the cyclical nature of our soul’s voyage between physical and nonphysical realms. The Pharisees and especially the Essenes, disciples of Plato, believed in reincarnation. The Jewish people, as a whole were waiting for the return of the prophets, and especially of Elijah. The Jewish Zohar speaks of transmigration, the Kabbalah of rebirth that allows men to be purified. Even Jesus, did not deny the concept. While reincarnation does not explicitly appear in the Gospels of the New Testament, its presence is nevertheless implicit in at least 3 circumstances. 1st: when Christ speaks of Abraham, “The Jews unto him, ‘Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? ‘ Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.'”- Bible: John (8:58) (implying that Jesus was eternal, having lived before)
2nd: the episode of the blind new-born baby. As Jesus passed by, he saw a man who was blind from his birth. So 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 the works of God should be made manifest in him.”- Bible: John (9:1-3) (implying the man had to have lived before to be born blind)
And lastly, it is announced to Zachary that his son will come forth “with the spirit and the strength of Elijah”. Christ clearly states that John the Baptist is Elijah. “`But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” —Jesus, (Matthew 17:12, 13)
It is interesting to note that many early Christian mystics mention reincarnation in their writings. In the 3rd century A.D., St. Gregory the Illuminator, the Armenian patriarch said: “It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and that if it does not take place during its life on earth, it must be accomplished in future lives.” Lactantius, the early Christian apologist from North Africa and Origen, one of the most distinguished writers of the early Church, both grant to the soul pre-existing and subsequent lives. One hundred years later, in the 4th century, the views on reincarnation, within the clergy, remained largely unchanged. St. Augustin ponders the following. “Did my infancy succeed another age of mine that dies before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother’s womb? . . . And what before that life again, O God of my joy, was I anywhere or in any body?” The tendency to hide reincarnation from the public begins in the 4th century A.D., with St. Jerome who stated the following “The transmigrations (reincarnation) of souls was taught for a long time among the early Christians as an esoteric and traditional doctrine which was to be divulged to only a small number of the elect.” (Jerome, letter to Demetrias) Indeed, this “one chance one life doctrine” with eternal damnation without parole for sinners, was a most convenient way to maintain the Church’s authority.
The second Council of Constantinople, held in 553 A.D. by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, marks a turning point in the history of reincarnation in the West. For it was here that, for purely political reasons, Pope Vigilius was forced to condemn Origen’s proposals related to, among other things, the pre-existence of the soul. It should be noted that the total blackout in effect in the West on this essential subject, which has lasted over 1500 years, has finally been lifted. Since 1979, The Vatican has officially authorized research into reincarnation.
The gradual reintroduction of reincarnation, in the latter half of the 20th century, by such forward thinking pioneers, as the Dr. Brian Weiss and Dr. Ian Stevenson, will be examined in the second part of this study, as I summarize the current work being conducted in this fascinating field.
You might want to read: Reincarnation Part 2