Lecture delivered at Irving Hall, San Francisco, California, September 28, 1891
Published in The New Californian, November 1891
Reincarnation is change. Whether in the domain of mind, of natural objects, or of human progress in civilization, the great law governing all is change. Everything is changing; the old into the new, the past into the present. This procession of change is evolution, and reincarnation and evolution are the same thing. The doctrine of reincarnation is that each man is a living, immortal soul; that, as Walt Whitman, the poet, says, he has “died ten thousand times before”; that being immortal he must have been always immortal; that he has lived before; and that he comes to earth again and again in new bodies, for the purpose of experience and development. As an old Hindu poet says, “I and thou, oh Arjuna, have had many births; we have been in many bodies, and we will be in many more.”
Now, although the doctrine of reincarnation applies to every atom in the universe, we will only consider it in respect to man himself. If man is the crowning glory, the aim and end of all evolutionary effort, as a conscious reasoning being his evolution must needs involve a changing series of lives. First of all, he should know himself, because once that he knows that, he knows all. Reincarnation, then, as applied to man, means that we are not here for the first time; that we have previously inhabited bodies on this earth. This, according to the Theosophic theory, is the only way in which spirits return to the earth. We do not hold, like some, that after a man dies, after his body is put away in the ground, he returns once more, without a body, to converse with his friends left behind. We say that he comes back and occupies another body; that he reincarnates. This is not a new nor a strange doctrine. It is as old as any records of civilization. The ancient Egyptians believed it and taught it. The Jews believed it. The Chaldeans no doubt believed it, for their philosophy is similar to that of the Egyptians and the Hindus. The latter have always believed it, and today accept it almost to a man. They declare that either man is immortal or he is not. If he is immortal he must have always been so; if he is not, then this world of ours is a chaos of injustice and unmerited suffering.
Is one life adequate for any of the purposes which it would seem ought to be in view, in the perfecting of man in his nature, his character, and his powers? I think that the answer will be that it is not enough if we desire to gain knowledge. The departments of knowledge are innumerable; they cannot be counted. In each the pursuit of knowledge is divided and again subdivided. Whether in history, the physical sciences, or the study of nature’s resources, of civilization, or, further yet, the study of the mind, the departments are so infinite that one faints with the idea of supposing it possible to acquire all that knowledge in a single lifetime. Now what is a lifetime? As it is reckoned according to the Christian scheme, it is 70 years. The insurance standard is much shorter; it is not 60 years. Now, a person spends a great deal of time in childhood, when they learn nothing; before they understand how to use their own senses that they may acquire knowledge. They will, it is true, acquire mere impressions, but these are indefinite and crude, so that the period of childhood has to be subtracted from this 60 years. One-third of the remainder is spent in sleep, and the greater part of the waking portion is wasted, so far as development is concerned, in the struggle for existence, for of our own civilization you will find that the major part are bound down to the wall in order to gain a scanty livelihood. How much time is there left in which to do anything whatever, except to gain a thimbleful to eat and a place to sleep? I take it that the object in view in having man upon earth is that he may develop his character up to the highest standard, and in order to do so he not only has to acquire knowledge in all its branches but he has also in addition to that to gain experience, for one can acquire knowledge in his room and yet have no experience. It is well-known that we must have experience with each other, personal contact in all the relations of life, in order to develop our character.
There is a story told in India, of the great sage Sankaracharya, bearing upon this point. He was a man who was celebrated all his life long as one possessed of the highest learning. He had studied and experienced almost everything, but one day the Goddess of Love came to him and said, “Sankaracharya, what is the nature of love?” He was obliged to reply, “I don’t know,” and in order to acquire experience as to its true nature he again, as the story goes, reincarnated in order that he might answer the question of the Goddess. So that even he, with all his wisdom from other experiences, had once more to reincarnate to gain actual experience in this.
In view then, of the amount of experience necessary to round out and develop human character, how much can be accomplished in one short life? Each one of us has a different trade or business. Take the man with a small store. He has nothing to do with large affairs; his whole life has been spent in making prices for the goods he sells. What chance has he to gain anything but that one small experience in this life? So on, in every direction. There is no chance to gain the needed experience, in order that a soul or character may be developed up to the highest possible standard. Further than this, character has to be formed, and the short time we have, even if the period of sleep be added, is not enough to form character. Besides, men and women from birth to death have almost the same essential character. The boy who was a trader in school, who swapped a knife for some marbles and the marbles for something else until he finally acquired money, is today a trader. Another boy who gave everything away is still the same; his essential character has not altered. It is rarely that man’s essential characteristics change from birth to death. Nothing changes in one short life except in response to the quantity of experience gained and the amount of this is too small to even materially modify much less to form character.
When, then, will we have the opportunity to improve or evolve, if there is only one life and one death? Never. God designed that man should have a character, and that it should be developed on all sides, so that he may acquire a knowledge of all truth. This cannot be done in one short life. It is desired, I suppose, by nature and by God that mankind, as a whole, should be elevated up to the highest, in purity, wisdom, compassion and a host of other Godlike characteristics. This is impossible in one short life, with half of this slept away. Our life, in addition, raises within us ideas with respect to the fact that there is more to be known; a consciousness that greater and grander truths exist than any we have yet encountered as the natural deduction from all that we have known. This consciousness of but a partial development of our faculties fills us with unrest. The knowledge that life leaves unused certain faculties which might fill us with gratification or sorrow, or at any rate with increased experience and wisdom, haunts us.
Failure and disappointment are everywhere; rich and poor alike feel them grinding in their hearts. Those who move in high social circles are not happy because their schemes do not succeed; others are miserable merely for the reason that they know not what else to do, and they are unsatisfied with their idleness. On the other hand are those who are discontented with their lot and the injustice surrounding them. Now this short life has raised these feelings and we must ask the question, “What is the way out? Is there any solution to these and similar problems?” The answer is, there is in Reincarnation, and in this only. Now, there are three hypotheses by which men have sought to surmount these difficulties. The first is that all of them are removed by mere death, by the simple fact of dying, or passing away from the world. Mere death is to be accepted as the end of all only upon the materialistic basis. If man is immortal, simple death is no solution. From this basis, we have to imagine a wonderful change after death. There is nothing in our whole experience to warrant such a conclusion, from the Christian or Spiritualistic standpoint. Furthermore, if it were true that mere dying and being translated to some other place or state will answer all these questions, then all souls would have to be alike. It really has sometimes seemed to me that the idea of going to heaven where I should sing songs that I did not like, and see a number of people who did not like me when I was alive, and who could not sing a note properly under any circumstances, would not be at all desirable. This change after death is too sudden, too contrary to all nature’s methods.
The second hypothesis aims at removing the difficulties by a spiritual discipline after death. Now, this will not answer because numerous faculties are not at all developed during life. It premises just as sudden a change of character as the first plan. In order to develop faculties that we find ourselves in partial possession of here, we must undergo the experience which evolves those faculties.
The last hypothesis, however, is reincarnation, and that, as I have said, will overcome all difficulties. Reincarnation shows the meaning of universal brotherhood; that all of us being spiritual beings, according to the grand plan of nature in all worlds and in all kingdoms up to the highest possible limit, are unable to escape from each other until we are essentially changed. To postulate as a truth that a whole family must die and go to heaven together because the mother or father wishes to see them is unphilosophical. Members of that family may become entirely alienated, and then be compelled to be in a company not like themselves, with whom they do not wish to associate. They can escape only by reincarnation. They only come back again and again in families together who are like in character. None escape from any family until they have altered their entire nature. In a similar manner to this method in families, reincarnation also insures advance in races. No advance can be possible without it.
The existence of savages, even at the present day, in America, in Borneo and in other places of the world, where there are hordes of them, can only be explained by reincarnation, as well as the further fact that they are melting away like the clouds of mist before the noonday sun. In the Sandwich Islands, the Indians there, now so closely connected with us by commerce, are disappearing; pushed out, it is declared, by civilization. We say not. It is very true that the missionaries going there, and the trader following, does often bring about this result in part, but it is not wholly due to that. The egos in those bodies are reaching the limit of experience under this kind of mental environment and when this limit is reached, no more bodies are produced in sufficient number to keep up the race. The reason why some savage nations are growing is that egos are there still gaining needed experience. Their essential character remains the same. When it shall have changed their life desires, no more such bodies will be produced.
Furthermore, not to postulate reincarnation is to sanction the greatest injustice. It is to accuse the God, in whom you believe, of injustice. Because, if Reincarnation is not a law of nature, then these savages are unjustly treated in being in existence at all. What is the use of simply inhabiting such bodies as theirs? Why are they condemned to such a life? Reincarnation restores justice to human existence in this, and in all the circumstances surrounding life and enables man to believe that the Universe is governed by law in every particular and in each department. Reincarnation provides also for exact justice to each individual in every civilization alike. Each person set in motion the causes in his last life which have brought about what he is now experiencing, and is, therefore, undergoing a just punishment or reward because he is the person who did the thing, and the person who should be punished or rewarded. Now, you may say, “I am not the person. It was another person, who was called so and so in a previous life.” To say that is to misconceive the doctrine. It does not mean that it was another individual, but the very same one reincarnated in a new body as one might be clothed with a different garment. The name is nothing. It is given to you by your parents, just as much without your consent as is your body. It does not represent you.
Now, the objections which are raised to this theory of reincarnation are few in number. They may be reduced to four heads. The first is, “I do not remember my former lives, and therefore it is unjust that I should suffer or enjoy for what I do not remember having done.” You do not remember half of this life. Who among you can bring back before him now the details of his childhood? How much do those of you remember, who lived in the country, for instance? You can remember the house on the farm, perhaps, and the most prominent objects, but you cannot remember more than a few particulars. Only the most important features are retained. The rest fades from the mind. Now, if the argument is good that you have never lived before because you do not remember it, then you have never lived these years of your life that you don’t remember, which illustrates the absurdity of such a position.
The second objection, contained in the first, is “that it is unjust.” This I have already explained. The theory that a man must remember a crime which he has committed, or the good he has done, in order to be justly punished or rewarded is violated, so far as nature is concerned, every moment in the day. You go to sleep at night, forgetting the window is open and catch a violent cold while you are asleep. You reap the consequences in a day or two after and do not question nature’s justice. You take into your stomach during the day some deleterious substance. Will the fact that you did not know it was poisonous enable you to escape the consequences? Is it not true that many children are lamed for life and that no one can tell how the accident occurred? I have known of a case where a nurse dropped a child in early youth, which afterwards developed a very distressing disease, one that often ruins a whole life. The child remembered nothing of it, yet the consequences fell upon its head. Is it unjust because it does not remember it? If there is no reincarnation it is unjust, because this child had not in its brief life done anything to warrant this accident.
The next objection is that reincarnation is contrary to heredity, that is, that heredity accounts for these things, accounts for everything, some say. But the best investigators are beginning to declare the contrary. They admit that it does not account for but a few things of a physical nature. It does not explain the differences in character. From its earliest youth each child exhibits a character of its own. One shows entire selfishness, a grasping propensity; another the opposite or open-heartedness; both being children of the same mother.
The last objection is a sentimental one and too often made. It has no force whatever, except that the world is largely governed by sentiment. People say “I don’t like it. I don’t want to be born again. I don’t wish to think of the idea that I won’t see my child, my husband and my friends again.” The mere sentimental thought “I don’t like it” is no argument. Take, for instance, the case of the mother who said to me the other night on the train, “I do not like the idea, because I wish to see my son again.” Now, which son does she wish to see? The one born a babe, whom she loved as well as her own life, or the same son grown to be a man? Or if he chanced to become a low character, is this the vision to be remembered? And the child, whom does he wish to remember and see, the parent in his beauty, strength and prime, or the old man, toothless, wrinkled and gray? Which of these? None. The real man is not subject to these changes, but is ever living and ever reincarnating.
Christians will find that the Bible confirms this doctrine on almost every page. It is in Matthew in several places. Christianity without reincarnation is an unjust scheme, to say nothing of other defects. The early Christian Fathers, as well as those of the Middle Ages, and poets and writers of all sorts and conditions have believed in this doctrine. Theosophists accept it because it sets man upon his feet; gives him a chance; allows him an opportunity to live a better life under better conditions, in new places and times. With it, man is able to raise himself up to the standard and power of a God, which is the intention of nature, for with reincarnation he acquires experience in every kind of life, and all varieties of bodies. He is able to transmute and purify his lower nature. He is, in fact, a pilgrim winding his way up to the very highest point attainable.