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The Belief in Reincarnation – Man-Made Theory or Sacred Truth?

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma...

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma. Illustration from Hinduism Today, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also called metempsychosis and transmigration, reincarnation is a man-made theory usually presented as fact or sacred law by believers.

Elements of the theory can be found in diverse religions and philosophies, including ancient Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, African and New Age systems.

Reincarnation usually involves ideas of karma and grace. After bodily death, the soul (or in some schools, temporary personality attributes) returns for another birth.

In most traditions the self is said to be on an evolutionary path from unconsciousness to consciousness—that is, from lower to higher or gross to subtle forms of being.

Some branches of contemplative Hinduism maintain that the soul begins in the mineral world and moves upward to the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Eventually it takes birth as a human being. After learning about and making good ethical choices from many human incarnations, the soul reincarnates in astral and heavenly realms before achieving ultimate liberation, awareness and bliss. At this point it never reincarnates into a body, gross or subtle.

Bad ethical choices reverse the process. If a person abuses their freedom, they may reincarnate backwards into the animal kingdom or possibly further down into a temporary hell, of which there are many.

Popular wisdom says God gives perfect punishments and rewards for our deeds. And generally speaking, this is found in reincarnation theory. Good ethical choices gain merit and one reincarnates into a better life next time around.

Bad ethical choices, however, lead to a less auspicious life. This idea is expressed in a Taoist tale, paraphrased as follows:

A man had led a dissolute life and reincarnates as a horse. After a few years the horse grows weary of being whipped by his masters, refuses to eat and dies. He then returns as a dog. Despising this incarnation the dog bites his master’s leg who has him destroyed. He returns in the form of a snake. By now he’s finally learned his lesson. One must play out the hand one is dealt, patiently seeing it through to learn how to be virtuous. As a reformed soul, the snake avoids doing harm to other animals by eating berries and tries to keep itself out of danger. But one day the snake mistakenly dies under the wheel of a cart. Pleading his case before the King of Purgatory, he finds himself reborn a man—a reward for his good intentions. ¹

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to this view, suicide is like skipping school (in the cosmic sense) and leads to a regression or less desirable rebirth.

But not all believers in reincarnation take this attitude toward suicide. Some say a similar life situation arises again, and the suicide is forced to repeat the cosmic classroom they didn’t graduate from the first time around.

In most Asian religions God’s grace can mitigate or even erase the effects of bad karma, a fact often overlooked in superficial critiques of reincarnation.

As mentioned, the alleged purpose of reincarnation is to instruct and prepare the soul for a blissful existence in eternity. However, the exact nature of this eternal perfection is outlined differently among schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism.

African pre-colonial tribal beliefs about reincarnation differ from their Asian counterparts. African ancestors apparently reincarnate into one or several descendants to give their family more power. The African Ibo believe that one chooses between two bundles before birth – one bundle holds good fortune, the other bad. While the spirit tries its best to choose a favorable incarnation, a formerly evil person enters into a difficult incarnation as a human or animal.

More variants of reincarnation are found within ancestor cults.

In Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice Gratiano suggests that Shylock is a reincarnated wolf. Shakespeare was widely read and often incorporated religion, myth, philosophy and physic into his plays.

In contrast to the belief in reincarnation, the Old Testament says that evil actions are repaid with evil, but not through reincarnation. Evil begets evil through one’s offspring:

The Lord…a God merciful and gracious…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7).

In Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas refutes reincarnation on the basis of Romans 9: 11-12:

For when they were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil…not of works, but of Him that calleth, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger.²

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some argue that the Catholic notion of purgatory was created as a Christian counterpart to the punishment and purification found in non-Christian beliefs in reincarnation.

In more recent times, some New Age thinkers say that every life is consciously chosen before birth.

Like most metaphysical speculation, we can’t know for sure one way or the other. It may be tempting to believe in reincarnation. As we go deeper in the spiritual life unconventional experiences may arise that seem to point to its reality. But I think we’d do well to stop, look and listen, as the American country western star Patsy Cline put it.³

  • Stop and don’t jump to conclusions
  • Look at what’s happening inside our heads and ask if there’s any other way to account for it
  • Listen to our hearts – Are we really happy with the belief system we’ve invested ourselves in? Or is something leading or, perhaps, calling us to a greater vista than that offered by a mere, man-made theory?

¹Raymond Van Over, ed. Taoist Tales, New York: Meridian Classic, 1973, pp. 52-53.

² The New Testament view of the body and its relation to the afterlife is expressed in I Corinthians 15; 51-52; 2 Corinthians 5:1; I Thessalonians 4:14; John 3: 4-7.

³ I don’t know why that analogy came to me while revising this. But I do know that the Canadian singer K. D. Laing apparently thought she was the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, for a while anyhow. See http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/kd-lang-emc/ I don’t know how that would have worked considering Laing was born (November 2, 1961) while Cline was still alive (died March 5, 1963). Delayed entry?

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Freyja – Afterlife goddess still alive today

English: The goddess Freia stands under a tree...

The goddess Freia stands under a tree of apples with her cats by her feet. Note that Wagner’s Freia merges the Norse goddesses Freyja and Iðunn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Norse mythology, Freyja is the goddess of love, sex, fertility, wealth, war and the afterlife, roughly parallel to the Greek Aphrodite. Young women consult her on matters of love. She and her brother, the fertility god Frey, are the offspring of Niord, god of the sea.

Half of all warriors slain in battle enter her heavenly hall, Fólkvangr. The other half go to Odin’s great hall at Valhalla. Wikipedia tells us

Freyja is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; in the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, the two latter written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century; in several Sagas of Icelanders; in the short story Sörla þáttr; in the poetry of skalds; and into the modern age in Scandinavian folklore, as well as the name for Friday in many Germanic languages.¹

Freyja is an old goddess, historically speaking, often equated with Frigga, the wife of Odin. However, some scholars suggest that Frigga and Freyja are two different versions of the same Germanic pagan deity.

The following image shows how Freyja, far from being some distant mythic memory, continues to inform the mythological and artistic imagination of many Northern Europeans.

The statue of Freyja on the Djurgårdsbron bridge in Stockholm (Sweden) in the late evening.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freyja

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Purgatory – an old concept in need of an update?

Divine Comedy by Dante – illustration to Purgatory by A. Baruffi. 14th canto: ‘ ‘Io sono Aglauro che divenni sasso!’/ Ed allor, per istrignermi al poeta,/ Indietro feci e non innanzi il passo.’

In Catholicism, purgatory is an afterlife place or state in which souls undergo temporary punishments due to their venial and (forgiven) mortal sins. These punishments may be quite unpleasant but, according to the tradition, are not as frightful as the eternal torment of hell.

This shows The Virgin and The Child being pres...

This shows The Virgin and The Child being present while souls awaiting purification are brought out of Purgatory and into Heaven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While enduring purgatory, the soul apparently goes through a process of purification in preparation for heaven and a Beatific Vision.

Catholics often uphold 2 Mac. 12:46 as scriptural support for Purgatory.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.¹

Scholars suggest that the idea of purgatory has deep roots in world religions and mythologies.

The same practice appears in other traditions, such as the medieval Chinese Buddhist practice of making offerings on behalf of the dead, who are said to suffer numerous trials… [And] In Judaism, Gehenna is a place of purification where, according to some traditions, most sinners spend up to a year before release.²

El Purgatorio (1890). Óleo sobre tela 339 x 25...

El Purgatorio (1890). Óleo sobre tela 339 x 256 cm. GAN.Cararas – Venezuela. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, some of the standard beliefs about purgatory seem pretty rigid,  probably based more on what people suppose things should be instead of any kind of genuine interior perception.

It seems far more probable that departed souls would experience an alternation and intermingling³ of heaven and less-than-heaven, according to the condition of their souls and other exigencies.

Just as we undergo good and not-so-good days on Earth, it is likely similar in the afterlife, with these experiences occurring within a meaningful, multidimensional dynamic. Conservative Catholics probably wouldn’t approve of this model. It’s too free-flowing and doesn’t fit into preexisting categories stemming from ancient and medieval worldviews. But I think it’s probably more accurate.

¹ https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Maccabees+12%3A43-46&version=DRA

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purgatory

³ Intermingling when trying to help earthbound souls through intercession.

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Soul

All Souls Night in Gdansk: Robin Hamman

All Souls Night in Gdansk by Robin Hamman

The idea of the soul is variously understood around the world and throughout history.

A distinction is often made between an individual soul and a world soul (anima mundi).

Some regard the soul as a multiple entity, as in ancient Egyptian religion or the contemporary views of the alleged trance channeler, Jane Roberts/Seth. Others insist the soul is single. And yet some say the soul is the conceptual “I” that apparently remains constant throughout one’s life (itself a highly debatable claim).

Plato viewed the soul as single but containing multiple functions.

Aristotle saw the soul as a partly rational and partly irrational function governing bodily needs, desires and actions that disappears at death.

Soul is also envisioned as a spiritual, self-motivating eternal agent or substance.

St. Thomas Aquinas insists the soul is united to the body but not of the body. For Aquinas it “operates through corporeal organs” with its “proper function” being “in the understanding.”

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of Hinduism the soul reincarnates, ultimately to merge with God, as a drop of water returns to the ocean from whence it came. In this sense, individuality is temporary, at best.

However, Ramanuja‘s Visistadvaita school of Hinduism provides an important exception to this idea. For Ramanuja, individual souls (jivas) emerge from and ultimately rest within God (Brahman) but retain some aspect of their individuality, existence and, therefore, reality.

The anatman doctrine of Buddhism contends that the idea of a soul is just a conceptual illusion; for Buddhists, the soul does not really exist.

Catholics believe that the soul is created by God at the moment of human conception, a view that has sparked intense debate among pro-life and pro-choice groups. Concerning death and the afterlife, traditional Catholic believers say the soul might (a) rise to heaven (b) be purified in purgatory in preparation for heaven or (c) descend to eternal hell.

In pop culture “soul” refers to a musical form, originating in America, that blends gospel music with rhythm and blues. Although soul music was created by black Americans, its offshoots are composed and performed by anyone, anywhere.


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Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on ...

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Formally known as the Bardo Thodol (Tbtn: bardo = liminality + thodol = liberation), The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the popular name for a collection of Buddhist texts, coined by their first translator, W. Y. Evans-Wentz.

While some joke about the Book of the Dead as if it were a dark, brooding document, Buddhists would probably say this attitude comes through ignorance and projection.

Believers see it as a kind of spiritual guidebook, designed to direct souls at the point of death to the best possible reincarnation. A lama, friend or guide usually sits over the death bed and reads the book to the dying or recently dead person.

Contemporary readers will likely be struck by the Book of the Dead’s practicality. Deceptive spiritual lights, enticements and other misleading phenomena the departed soul will encounter are described as things to be avoided, not unlike a road map for a large, unfamiliar city or a trekking guide for a tricky mountain pass.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on TBD completely dismisses Carl Jung’s psychological interpretation.

Jung’s introduction betrays a misunderstanding of Tibetan Buddhism, using the text to discuss his own theory of the unconsciousness.¹

It seems that whoever wrote that was pretty defensive about their beliefs. Jung’s archetypes, after all, transcend space and time so a Jungian analysis of this type of phenomena doesn’t seem inappropriate.

In music, the Beatles were apparently influenced by The Psychedelic Experience, a manual based on TBD by Timothy Leary et. al. The line “it’s dying to take you away” from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was also based on a hippie mix of drugs and TBD.²

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bardo_Thodol

² Ibid.

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Tramp Souls

A Haunted Trail by Joshua Debner

A Haunted Trail by Joshua Debner via Flickr

In mystical thought, tramp souls are deceased persons said to be clinging to the material world, often to some locality. They might be holding a grudge against someone whom they feel wronged them.

Alternately, tramp souls are regarded as accidental death victims who don’t understand why or haven’t accepted that they’ve passed.

Tramp souls are allegedly responsible for hauntings, obsessions and possessions.

An unofficial branch of Catholic thinking, expressed by author Michael Brown (Prayer of the Warrior), says homosexuality is in part caused by the influence of tramp souls. According to Brown, a deceased woman’s spirit influences a man’s sexual preference or a male spirit influences a woman’s. So for Brown, an opposite-sex spirit permeates the personality and an individual comes to identify with it over time.¹

The Hindu Yogananda has this to say:

There are, however, a few astral beings known as “tramp souls.” They are earthbound because of strong attachments to the world, and are desirous of entering a physical form for sense enjoyments. Such beings are usually unseen; and they have no power to affect the ordinary person. Tramp souls do occasionally succeed in entering and taking possession of someone’s body and mind, but only when such a person is mentally unstable or has weakened his mind by keeping it often blank or unthinking. It is like leaving a car unlocked with the key in the ignition,- some vagrant may get in and drive off. Tramp souls want a free ride in someone else’s physical-body vehicle—anyone’s—having lost their own that they were so attached to. It was in such cases of possession that Jesus exorcised the vagrant spirits. Tramp souls cannot stand the high vibration of spiritual thoughts and consciousness. Sincere seekers after God who practise scientific methods of prayer and meditation need never fear such beings. God is the Spirit of all spirits. No harm from negative spirits can come to one whose thoughts are on God.²

¹ Brown’s ultra-conservative book also sees the TV show Bewitched as a work of the devil. See Michael Brown, Prayer of the Warrior. Milford, OH: Faith Publishing Co., 1993, p. 103.

² See diccussion » Man’s eternal quest, in the chapter: “what are ghosts?” http://www.yoganandaji.org/board/showthread.php?t=7787

Related Posts » Demons, Obsession, Possession, Transmigration


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Ancestor Cults

Ancestor Figure, Kulap

Ancestor Figure, Kulap – J. C. Merriman via Flickr

Ancestor Cults [ancestor, from Latin antecessor, from ante, before + cedere, to go] is the now antiquated and politically incorrect term that until fairly recently scholars applied to individuals or groups who revere ancestors believed to exist in the afterlife.

Various traditions around the world venerate and pray to deceased ancestors.

Adherent of these traditions believe that familial spirits come to aid in daily life by bestowing spiritual power, protection, wisdom and practical guidance through individuals acting as mediums.

With roots in Africa, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, ancestor veneration appears especially in folk religions. Ritual is often present. In Africa, ancestors are said to protect living relatives from witches and voodoo curses. In Asia, ancestor veneration takes on varying degrees of importance in Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism. In China, the graves of ancestors are meticulously kept, despite former Marxist and Communist attempts to eradicate other spiritual practices.

In North American Native religions, the ongoing presence of the dead is taken to be equally as important as the ongoing presence of the living. Western culture tends to view this as odd and some religious groups deplore it as Satanic, probably because of their focus on the trappings and trends of everyday life. But it’s ironic that Catholics, for instance, believe that anybody can be a saint, and as such, mediate divine graces for us.¹

On the other hand, we do have psychologically questionable individuals who believe and follow any voice they hear without question. Some of these folks can do quite well in society, masking their difference (especially when non-violent). If the voices tell them to do bad things, they can still hide it for a long time before being discovered. Usually things start to unravel, however, and the potentially violent person’s family, friends, coworkers and, perhaps, psychiatrist begin to see that something’s wrong. Sometimes this is reported in time. Other times not, and an upsetting event (like failing an exam or losing a job) triggers these individuals into committing unspeakable acts of violence.

This short account of the psychology behind this type of violence might seem out of place here. But I mention it to underscore the fact that the belief in spirit communication is not always benign.

¹ See the entry on intercession.