Antti Savinainen – Finland
Although reincarnation is a basic tenet of Theosophy, Hinduism, and Buddhism, teachings about this doctrine differ in these traditions. In Hinduism and Theosophy, for instance, an atman or higher self is behind subsequent incarnations, but this is not the case in mainstream Buddhism. Moreover, both Hinduism and Buddhism maintain that it is possible for a human being to reincarnate as an animal, whereas according to Theosophy, it is impossible.
It may surprise some Theosophists that H. P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) taught not one but two versions of reincarnation. The first version, metempsychosis, described in Isis Unveiled (1877), did not contain reincarnation on earth, save for a few exceptions. The second version, presented in The Secret Doctrine (1888), taught that the individuality (which she explicitly distinguishes from the personality) has multiple incarnations on earth.
What might explain this discrepancy between Blavatsky’s two main works? To answer this question, I will use Julie Chajes’ excellent discussion in her book Recycled Lives: A History of Reincarnation in Blavatsky’s Theosophy (2019), which is based on her doctoral dissertation. Chajes provides a lucid account of Blavatsky’s two doctrines of reincarnation within its historical context. Chajes’ primary sources are Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, and The Key to Theosophy (1889). In addition, she draws on Blavatsky’s private letters and articles published in The Theosophist. Chajes received financial support for her dissertation from the Blavatsky Trust, and several prominent Theosophists read and commented on her work before publication.
In ancient Greek philosophy, the term metempsychosis refers to transmigration. Plato addresses the concept at the end of the Republic, where he tells how a soldier called Er miraculously returned to life after death and recounted the secrets of the invisible world. Blavatsky maintained that Pythagoras, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Gnostics, and Giordano Bruno all taught metempsychosis.
According to Blavatsky’s doctrine of metempsychosis, the monad is initially “exhaled” from the divine source, from which it started its journey to matter. The monad lives on a different planet before reaching earth, then it passes through the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms. These forms are quickly “relived” in the developmental stages in utero. The human being is threefold: body, soul, and spirit. Although it can achieve immortality by conjoining the soul and spirit during its lifetime, only very few people are capable of doing this. Those souls who did not succeed are annihilated in death. The deceased body and annihilated soul return to nature as “terrestrial larvae.”
By contrast, those who have achieved immortality carry on their journey to higher levels as the same personalities they had during their lifetimes. While transmigrating, they acquire in each sphere a new astral body (this does not mean the same thing as the astral body in Theosophy after Blavatsky). Finally, the immortals achieve nirvana, in which they are absorbed into the divine.
Blavatsky’s teaching of metempsychosis allowed for a few exceptions in which the same soul could reincarnate back on earth. This was the case for those who have died too young or had severely deficient mental faculties. Exceptions were also believed to be possible thanks to the assistance of an adept.
The Doctrine of Reincarnation
Blavatsky moved to India in 1879, and she started teaching the doctrine of reincarnation only after the move. As the editor of The Theosophist, which published articles on reincarnation starting in 1882, Blavatsky used the terminology of the monistic Advaita Vedānta in her teaching of this doctrine. Advaita Vedānta stresses oneness with Brahman as the fundamental reality of all beings.
Blavatsky maintains that all aspects of the universe reflect each other (somewhat like a hologram): the human being reincarnates, but so do planets and even the universe itself. These cyclic appearances and disappearances have the goal of increasing divine self-consciousness. Matter and spirit are inseparable polarities, and they both are manifestations of the same root principle.
Current humanity has passed through the stages of the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms, not on earth, but in previous periods of planetary manifestations, which are called manvantaras. Even the planetary spirits, Dhyan Chohans, and other highly evolved beings have passed through the stage of humanity in some earlier period of manifestation (an unimaginably long time ago). Regardless of their high state of being, they too are evolving further by helping other living beings to evolve.
Three factors lead to spiritual evolution: the inner tendency of the universe to evolve, the assistance provided by higher beings, and the law of cause and effect: karma. The goal of human spiritual evolution is the perfect human being, known in Theosophy as a Master. This path eventually leads to liberation from the necessity of reincarnation, but the Master will continue reincarnating and voluntarily helping humanity and all living beings. It is easy to see that this ideal is the same as that of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism.
Spiritual evolution on earth occurs through the so-called seven Root Races, which all have seven subraces. Current humanity is in the fifth subrace of the fifth Root Race. It is important to note that these have nothing to do with ethnicity or race in the modern world. Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of Anthroposophy, referred to the Root Races as Earth epochs and to the subraces as cultural epochs. I find these terms more appropriate, since the present notion of race is controversial.
Blavatsky introduced seven principles to characterize the human being more precisely. To simplify a bit, one principle is the visible physical body, and the rest are invisible subtle bodies. Blavatsky used names derived from Sanskrit: sthula-sharira (physical body), linga-sharira (etheric body in current Theosophy), prana, kama rupa (astral body in current Theosophy), manas (mind, in both lower and higher aspects), buddhi (the vehicle of spirit), and atman (spirit). The seven principles correspond to body, soul, and spirit: the first three form the body; kama-rupa and lower manas form the soul (personality); and the higher manas, buddhi, and atman form the spirit (known also as the Ego or individuality). Atman and buddhi together form the monad (although the monad also has other meanings in Theosophy. https://blavatskytheosophy.com/what-exactly-is-the-monad/
Manas plays a central role in reincarnation. The higher manas is attracted to buddhi, whereas the lower manas is attracted to kama rupa, that is, passions and desires. The death process has a crucial phase, known as the second death, in which the best of the personality is sifted and joined to the individuality, which continues its life in devachan (the heavenly state). Blavatsky describes this process thus (Blavatsky, 1889/2017, 115–16):
During every Devachanic period the Ego . . . clothes itself, so to say, with the reflection of the “personality” that was. I have just told you that the ideal efflorescence of all the abstract, therefore undying and eternal qualities or attributes, such as love and mercy, the love of the good, the true and the beautiful, that ever spoke in the heart of the living “personality”, clung after death to the Ego and therefore followed it to Devachan.
Subsequently, the three highest principles leave the kama-rupa, which becomes an empty shell and will gradually disintegrate. However, according to Blavatsky, this shell has some elementary consciousness and memories of the past life, which can be activated in a mediumistic séance.
After a long time (1,000–3,000 years), the monad feels an attraction to a new life on earth. It begins by descending from devachan to the lower spheres and receives new principles which consist of the same “life-atoms” (or permanent atoms) as in the previous incarnation. However, the previous personality does not incarnate, save for a few exceptions, such as those who died young. Blavatsky describes the relationship between the reincarnating Ego and the new personality in the following way (Blavatsky, 1889/2017, 106):
It is that Ego, that “Causal Body,” which overshadows every personality Karma forces it to incarnate into; and this Ego which is held responsible for all the sins committed through and in, every new body or personality—the evanescent masks which hide the true Individual through the long series of rebirths.
Karma will determine what the new incarnation will be like. Karma provides a just explanation for the diverse destinies and suffering that people live through. Blavatsky utilizes the Buddhist concept of skandhas in describing the karmic characteristics and tendencies of the new personality. In Buddhism, skandhas refer to the five “aggregates”: form, sensation, perception, mental activity or formation, and consciousness.
Evaluating the Two Theories of Reincarnation
There is a clear difference between metempsychosis and reincarnation: the latter states that, as a rule, the human being will reincarnate back on earth, whereas the former states that this is only possible in exceptional cases.
How could these two views be harmonized? Could it be that Blavatsky and her Masters changed their minds? Blavatsky (1886) maintains that there is no contradiction between the two theories of reincarnation. Metempsychosis denied the reincarnation of a personality as a rule, as does the doctrine of reincarnation. Only the best in personality becomes part of individuality or the Ego; in other respects, the personality dies. There is, however, an important exception to this rule in both views: those who have conjoined their personality and individuality during life—that is, the initiates—do not die. In this sense, the two descriptions agree with each other.
On the other hand, the two descriptions have an important difference: Blavatsky does not talk about reincarnating individuality in Isis Unveiled. One might speculate that this information could not be, for one reason or another, disclosed at the early phase of Theosophy, or perhaps the mystery of reincarnation was not completely clear to Blavatsky when she was writing this work. Chajes identifies an important motivation in Isis Unveiled which could explain the discrepancy between the two theories of reincarnation, at least to some extent: Blavatsky was adamant in denying the reincarnation of souls (personalities) taught by some spiritualists (Allan Kardec, Anna Kingsford, and Edward Maitland). Moreover, Kingsford taught that a human soul could reincarnate as an animal, which Blavatsky vehemently denied, as did all later main authorities in Theosophy and Anthroposophy.
Blavatsky considered the spiritualistic concept of reincarnation as harmful to the spiritual evolution of humanity. The Mahatma Letters (Barker, 1923/2021) strongly discourage attending mediumistic séances, since only empty shells of those who have moved on to devachan or have died prematurely could be present. The latter could endure serious damage simply by being drawn to a séance.
Blavatsky converted to Buddhism in Ceylon in 1880. Nonetheless, she expressed her doctrine of reincarnation in terms of Advaita Vedānta rather than Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist view of reincarnation appears to be present in her works only in the teaching of skandhas, although here too there are some differences in interpretation. https://theosophy.wiki/en/Skandha
On the other hand, as Chajes points out, Blavatsky’s teaching of reincarnation did not simply consist of Advaita Vedāntic views; rather, it was an interpretation of Advaita Vedānta from the perspective of Western esoterism, especially Neoplatonism. From the Theosophical point of view, one could say that Blavatsky’s doctrine of reincarnation was not ultimately derived from any philosophy or religion; instead, it was the result of the spiritual, empirical knowledge of both Blavatsky and her Masters.
Barker, A. Trevor, ed. (1923/2021). The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. 2d ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press. The book is available online at https://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/mahatma/MahatmaLetters-eBook.pdf.
Blavatsky, H. P. (1886). “Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits.” The Path, November 1886. Available at https://www.theosophytrust.org/561-theories-about-reincarnation-and-spirits
Blavatsky, H. P. (1889/2017). The Key to Theosophy. The Project Gutenberg e-book of The Key to Theosophy is available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/55618/55618-h/55618-h.htm.
Chajes, Julie (2019). Recycled Lives: A History of Reincarnation in Blavatsky’s Theosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.